When former President Barack Obama shook hands with Nathan Copeland who is a quadrapalegic, he shook a robotic hand that can send signals to Nathan's brain. The sensors that made this possible were developed by a Utah company, Blackrock Neurotech.
Copeland injured his spinal cord in 2004 in car accident. This paralized most of his body from the neck down leaving him unable to feel and move his arms and legs. His brain, however, was unharmed. This allowed Copeland to participate in a study in 2015 that would become the first time an individual was able to control a mechanical robot arm with their mind while also receiving sensory feedback through the mechanical fingers.
"Just little teeny zaps directly into my brain, and that elicits sensations that feel like they are coming from my actual physical hand," Copeland said describing the sensation. "Even though you know, they're just little, little electric currents directly into my brain that feel that way.”
Six years after the original study, Copeland is continuing tests at the University of Pittsburgh as part of research on sensory stimulation in the brain. He also has a device that allows him to play video games and draw using his mind.
“I could actually use a joystick that I have and play them better, but funner to play Sonic the Hedgehog with your brain alone than with the joystick," he said. "But those are things that can completely change someone's life."
Dr. Robert Gaunt leads the Rehab Neural Engineering Laboratory where he and others are studying how to make these sensory inputs more accurately represent the real sensation.
“Active research projects are trying to figure out how we can change the way we stimulate the brain to increase the range of sensations that we can produce," Gaunt said. "How to increase their naturalness, like trying to make them feel more normal, and then also trying to figure out more about them as we then combine those sensations with behaviors, actions and movements.”
Gaunt said that there are a number of hiccups in this research, one being the time it takes to conduct these tests and another is that there is much more to be learned about the brain.
Despite the progress yet to be made in the field, Florian Solzbacher believes the commonality of implanted devices will become similar to taking pharmaceutical drugs.
“I don't necessarily see implantable devices as replacing pharma. But I do see them as clearly supplementing that," said Solzbacher. "And in particular, when it comes to neurological disorders where there's so much that can be done with neuromodulation and it started in Parkinson's, epilepsy, pain, chronic pain, there's more and more that is being done. Depression is another area. And you know, this is just the starting point."
Gaunt said in the future he wants to see a streamlined process for those who have spinal cord injury, ALS, or other conditions to receive these implants with relative ease. He described a process where the device is easy to implant, covered by insurance and also user-friendly.
"And they're able to do useful things with it all without having a team of engineers or PhD scientists or anybody else involved in any any step or part of that process," he said.
These devices may also become commercial and be used by people who have no illness or injury but want to improve their functionality. While there are still questions of how this may look, it does create ethical questions.
“Access is certainly an issue," Gaunt said, "I think that there's obviously security issues. In order for these technologies to work, we need high bandwidth data going into and out of the brain. And so it's important to think about security, in long term, data security of these things, as well, as you know, the physical device security, you certainly wouldn't want somebody hacking into these systems.”