By Dr. Maria Simbra

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Nathan Copeland has a spinal cord injury as the result of a car accident in 2004.

While he can’t use his own arms to move objects, he can use a robot arm just by thinking about moving it. Not only can he control the movement, but he can feel what is in its grasp.

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“Sometimes it’s pretty natural. Sometimes it’s not,” Nathan says.

This is possible because of a brain computer interface. Implants in the different parts of Nathan’s brain that control movement and feel sensation are hooked up to the computer. The computer is hooked up to the robot arm.

“Nathan has four electrodes that are implanted in his brain that allow us to record from single neurons that are firing as he thinks about trying to move,” explains UPMC Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation’s Jennifer Collinger, PhD.

Signals from the robot arm go back to Nathan’s brain where it’s perceived as feeling in his hand.

“Sometimes it feels like a pressure. Sometimes it’s just a tingle. A couple just feel like a warm feeling,” he describes.

“This is the first time this had been done in anybody, in a person at all, let alone someone with spinal cord injury,” says Dr. Collinger. “I think it’s just a technical success that we’re able to do that. There’s a lot of challenges with trying to stimulate and record in the brain at the same time.”

The sensing part of the brain is called the sensory cortex. The part of the brain that controls movement is in front of it, called the motor cortex. So, you can actually identify areas that correspond to the arm and hand.

The team would like to eventually make the system smaller and more portable to be used in real life settings.

“As a first step, he could control a robot that’s potentially attached to his wheelchair, to perform tasks that he is unable to perform with his own arms,” says Dr. Collinger.

Of course, all this success has led to more questions for the computer to analyze.

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“We don’t always move when we’re using our arm. You’re picking up a bottle or holding a coffee cup, you’re not moving very much. And what’s happening is you’re controlling the force that you hold the cup with, and so we’ve learned how to figure out what the brain is doing when it’s moving. We need to learn how to figure out what the brain is doing when instead of decoding movement, we’re decoding force. How hard are you grasping something?” Says UPMC Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation’s Dr. Michael Boninger.

He hopes this work will lead to a treatment doctors can prescribe to spinal cord injury patients.

A highlight for the team and Nathan was showing off this work and shaking hands and bumping fists with a United States president.

“When the president shook his hand, Natham could feel that by us stimulating through the electrodes in his sensory cortex,” Dr. Collinger says.

Nathan can only move and feel while the computer is hooked up to his brain.

He will be in the study for five years.

“And then I’m out. Which will suck,” he laments.

He enjoys the challenges.

“My record was 22. And I got 23 on Tuesday,” he says, “It’s one of those things, like, I could probably do better. Let’s just do it another million times.”

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Nathan is working to raise money for a van to help with his commutes. If you would like to donate, visit his Go Fund Me page here.