Technology

My Luke Skywalker robotic hand lets me feel again for first time in ten years

U.S. President Barack Obama touches a robotic arm operated by Nathan Copeland, a quadriplegic brain implant patient who can experience the sensation of touch and control a remote robotic arm with his brain during a tour of the innovation projects at the White House Frontiers conference in Pittsburgh, U.S. October 13, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

A paralysed man has experienced the sense of touch in his hands for the first time in more than 10 years thanks to a mind-controlled robotic arm. Tiny chips implanted in Nathan Copeland's brain bypassed his damaged spinal cord, relaying electrical signals governing movement and sensation to and from the arm. In a medical first, the 30-year-old was blindfolded as researchers at the University of Pittsburgh touched the robotic fingers. He identified the correct digit 84% of the time. Mr Copeland, of Dunbar, Pennsylvania, said most "felt like a pressure or a tingling", in his own corresponding finger.

It's cheesy but, Luke Skywalker loses his hand and then basically the next day he's got a robot one and it's working fine. We have to get to that point, and to do that, someone has to start it

Nathan Copeland

The experiment is an early step in the quest to create prosthetics that can feel. It comes more than a decade on from a car accident which left Mr Copeland's legs and hands paralysed when he was a teenager. With research in its early stages he does not get to keep the robotic arm, but said he was proud to be helping to advance the science. "Technically when it's over, I will have netted nothing except having done some cool stuff with some cool people," he said. On Thursday, Mr Copeland also fist-bumped with president Barack Obama when he visited the university to see progress on the research for himself.

It's not only that emotional connection we get. People have an incredibly difficult time interacting with objects, picking objects up, manipulating them, doing fairly basic things with the hand if they don't have a very basic sense of touch

Robert Gaunt, assistant professor of rehabilitation
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