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Heroes

This robot arm is like a cochlear implant, but for touch. Watch it get turned on.

It was winter. It was raining. And Nathan Copeland was driving home.

Image via iStock.

Copeland, then 18, lived in Pennsylvania. He was coming home from Penn State Fayette at night and road conditions were poor. Copeland was only a few minutes away from his house when he wrecked his car.


"I ended up taking a turn too fast," he said in a video from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The accident broke Copeland's neck and damaged his spinal cord. Medics airlifted him to the hospital. But the crash paralyzed him. Everything from his chest down turned numb. Today, he can move his wrists and shoulders, but that's about it.

Our sense of touch is more important than you might think.

If I asked you to name our senses, touch would probably be one of the last ones. But it's actually very important for helping us move through the world.

Touch can warn us if something is sharp. It helps our brains keep track of where our limbs are and what they're doing. Ever had a limb go numb while sleeping, only to wake up and discover it in some weird position?

Touch also helps us hold on to things. You don't have to manually calculate the pounds-per-square-inch of a firm handshake, for example. You just know.

Losing all of that can be hard. Copeland needed help with all his daily activities. Further health problems meant he had to drop out of school, too.

But now, Copeland will be one of the first testers for robotic arms that will restore his sense of touch.

Photo via University of Pittsburgh Medical Center/Pitt Health Sciences.

After his accident, Copeland enrolled in a registry for clinical trials and moved on with his life. Then, about 10 years after the accident, a group of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center got in contact with him. They wanted to know if he would help test a new device they were creating.

It's a mind-controlled robotic arm. It connects to Copeland via tiny implants in his brain, which are carefully placed for arm control. He can move the arm with a thought.

All of this is neat, but it's not really that new. Other scientists have made mind-controlled arms before. But Copeland is the first human to get his sense of touch back as well, and that's the cool part.

"I can feel just about every finger — it's a really weird sensation," he said about a month after the device was hooked up. It's not painful, he said. "Sometimes it feels electrical and sometimes it's pressure, but for the most part, I can tell most of the fingers with definite precision. It feels like my fingers are getting touched or pushed."

Photo via University of Pittsburgh Medical Center/Pitt Health Sciences.

One of the most common problems with prosthetics is that they can't give "This is sharp. This is where your arm is. This is a good handshake"-type feedback that flesh-and-blood limbs can. It can make them awkward to use, which is why this new technology is so important.

Copeland's new arm could be a big step toward more natural prosthetics.

More work needs to be done, but this could be a big win for the 5.6 million people in the United States living with some form of paralysis.

"The ultimate goal is to create a system which moves and feels just like a natural arm would," said Pittsburgh University professor Robert Gaunt said in a press release. He led the team that treated Copeland.

More research needs to be done to refine the technique, of course. Copeland can feel pressure and intensity, for example, but he can't sense temperature.

"We have a long way to go to get there, but this is a great start," said Gaunt.

Watch UPMC's video of this breakthrough below:

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