They have a robotic arm that is controlled by the mind and regains the capacity to touch


A robotic arm can change the life of anyone who needs it, just by rehabilitating a lost limb.

Taking the experience to the next level, we met in 2016 the story of Nathan Copeland, as part of the pioneering initiative to implement a robotic arm controlled through a brain implant, which also regains the ability of touch in the person carrying it.

Six years after the start of the investigation and five years after that first report, new developments in this research that has as evidence the 34-year-old Copeland, who suffers from a serious spinal injury and the loss of mobility of his four limbs since 2004, following a car accident, were released.

With the certainties of several years of trial and error, the last conclusions of this work were published today in the journal Science.

The world's first brain-computer interface

Following his accident, Nathan Copeland volunteered to participate in scientific research. The most important step was six years ago when he underwent surgery using which he had small electrodes implanted into his brain.

Specifically, they are two sets of 88 electrodes, no wider than a lock of hair, distributed in matrices that resemble small brushes, penetrate deep into the cortex of the brain, influencing its motor area.

Under this dynamic, no more than 30 people around the world already have some type of implant of similar category, as discussed by one of the authors of the study, Rob Gaunt, assistant professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh.

In the case of Copeland, the difference is that, in addition to the intervention of the motor area of the brain, there is also an additional set of electrodes that are connected to its somatosensory cortex.

"I am the first human in the world to have implants in the sensory cortex that they can use to stimulate my brain directly," Copeland said in a conversation with the AFP agency, which has been replicated in different media in recent hours.

"When we're grabbing objects, we use this sense of touch very naturally to improve our ability to control, "Gaunt added.

What is new about this experiment is the development of an interface that is bidirectional. This means that you can not only collect instructions from the brain, to send them to the robotic arm. Similarly, but in the opposite direction, the artificial limb can also send stimuli captured through its sensors, to be processed in the brain.

Tests with Copeland had previously been done only on monkeys. During the last years, working with this volunteer has allowed them to perfect technique and, in passing, improve his life.

Today, because of the confinement, Copeland continues to use its brain-computer interface at home, playing video games and learning to draw on a tablet using only his mind, without occupying the robotic arm to press buttons. "It's only a second nature for me now," the volunteer said in his last interview.

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