A study being conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh has shown incredible progress to restoring a sense of touch to paralyzed individuals. Whenever the nervous system gets damaged in the right place, a person loses the ability to control much of their bodies. The Nervous system is normally responsible for transmitting signals and when it gets damaged, despite the brain being fully functional, a person remains paralyzed. Scientists have been experimenting on ways to replace the missing signals with artificial one. In the Pittsburgh University research, doctors have managed to use a brain implant to return the sense of touch to a paralyzed man. The only difference is that he now feels with a robot hand.
Nathan Copeland, the subject of the study lost all sensation from his arm down when he got involved in a car accident 12 years ago. His brain remained in perfect health though the nerves that transmit signals to and from the rest of his body got damaged. Doctors managed to place electrodes inside Copeland’s brain, creating a new path for electrical impulses associated with the sense of touch. This experiment was sensational since prior to it all attempts to restore sensations of touch through brain implants have been done in animal experiment or used very large electrodes during existing operations.
Past research has already proved that it is possible to give people control of a robotic arm through a direct brain link. However, without a sense of touch, use of the robotic limb requires that you keep a close eye as you move and try to pick things up. Using a standard-issued biological human arm, users can feel when their fingertips come in contact with something they want to pick up and also know how much pressure they are exerting on it.
To make it possible to have a sense of touch using a robotic arm, researcher started monitoring Copeland’s brain through a non-invasive technique known as magnetoencephalography. The hypothesis created was that some areas of the brain showed activity spike at that moment when the same areas were supposed to light up when he touched something with his hands. That’s the area where researchers implanted the electrodes in Copeland’s brain. Whenever an electrical impulse is sent through the electrodes into his brain, Copeland experienced the same sensation as touching something with his hands.
Throughout the study, scientist discovered that the brain implant evoked natural-feeling sensation including warmth and pressure in Copeland’s hands. Moreover they established that he felt as though the sensation originated in his upper palm and the base of the four fingers on his right hand.
For now, this is a great proof of concept. The monitoring machinery and limbs are still too expensive and bulky to integrate into people’s lives. It also requires brain surgery to implant electrodes. Possibly in the future it will be possible to bring down the cost and develop a less invasive way of stimulating the brain.
Watch Copeland use the implant
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