In 2004, at 18 years old, Nathan Copeland broke his neck in a car accident. The injury left him paralyzed, depriving him of essentially all physical function from his chest down. While he can lift his wrists, he cannot move his fingers, and has lost almost all of the feeling within them. Through remarkable innovation in both prosthetic limbs and neurotechnology, that is now changing.
After implanting several chips inside Copeland’s brain, a month of eliciting nothing more than a tingling sensation in his entire arm, and six months of testing and tweaking, scientists at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center have implemented the first prosthetic—a hand in this case—that allows someone to feel.
The science behind the breakthrough is called, intracortical microstimulation of the somatosensory cortex. From the research article just published in Science Translational Medicine:
We show that microstimulation within the hand area of the somatosensory cortex of a person with long-term spinal cord injury evokes tactile sensations perceived as originating from locations on the hand and that cortical stimulation sites are organized according to expected somatotopic principles…
Further, modulating the stimulus amplitude grades the perceptual intensity of the stimuli, suggesting that intracortical microstimulation could be used to convey information about the contact location and pressure necessary to perform dexterous hand movements associated with object manipulation.
This. Is. Un. Real. It will be a while before anything like this is available to patients outside of a laboratory, but man, talk about a high five for progress.
Enjoy this mind-blowingly inspirational video from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center: