Twelve years after becoming paralyzed in a car accident, Nathan Copeland remembered the moment he was finally able to regain his sense of touch in his right hand.
"I was like, 'Yeah, I think I feel something,'" he told ABC News. "I could also feel I had a huge smile on my face."
Copeland, 30, is the first person to use breakthrough technology that uses a brain implant and robotic arm to help him "feel" again. The technology uses intracortical stimulation mapping, a procedure that aims to localize function in various brain regions. Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center published Copeland's story today in the medical journal Science Translational Medicine.
Dr. Robert Gaunt, a research assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine's physical medicine and rehabilitation department, helped develop the technology and worked with Copeland through the experimental procedure.
"He was excited," Gaunt recalled of the moment Copeland regained feeling. "He's a pretty calm, collected guy, but it was a moment of great relief for me and a lot of cheering from the team."
The goal is for this technology to bypass the damaged spinal cord. Brushes and tiny wires were implanted in his motor and sensory cortex in his brain. Researchers stimulated the part of his brain that processes sensations in his fingers, even though he was still physically unable to move his hand. They then mapped these areas so that when the robot hand was touched, Copeland's brain was stimulated, so it felt as if his own hand was touched.
"Sensors in the fingers of the robot become active, and when you touch the finger and put pressure on it, we read the sensor data to convert this data to send impulses to the brain," Gaunt explained. "Nathan's hand was essentially disconnected from the brain because of his injury."
One goal is to make these sensations as natural as possible — from warmth to pressure, depending on the area of the brain that is stimulated and to what degree the bionic arm is stimulated.
After an operation in March 2015 in which electrodes were placed in a part of his brain called the somatosensory complex, it took four weeks of stimulation trials with no results before the momentous event.
As for the sensations sent to his brain from the bionic arm, "some are a pressure. Some are like a tingle. Some are warm. There is one really hard to describe ... For now, we call it spidey sense, since it feels spidery" Copeland said, borrowing a term from "Spider-Man."
He has been paralyzed since he was injured in a car accident at 18. The Pennsylvania native was a college freshman when, just 2 miles from home, his car swerved out of control on a wet road. He was paralyzed from the chest down.
He remembers his emergency responders' actions. "I kind of blacked out for a while," he said in a video released by University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. "I remember it being dark. I felt the raindrops on my shoulder when they cut my shirt."
He spent a week in the intensive care unit and two months in a rehabilitation facility. Eager to find a way to improve, Copeland began to research experimental studies and soon learned about Gaunt's project. Despite needing to have implants placed in his brain, Copeland said, he was undeterred.
"We’re doing the study so we can improve prosthetics," he said in the video. "It will be really helpful for people who have to live with this stuff every day ... like whether or not the grip is tight enough with a prosthetic in order not to drop [a cup]. Knowing for sure will probably be very awesome."