Obama shakes mind-controlled robot hand wired to sense touch

WASHINGTON (AP) — A paralyzed man shared a handshake with President Barack Obama on Thursday by using a mind-controlled robotic arm that, in a first for medical research, is helping to restore his sense of touch.

Obama fist-bumped Nathan Copeland’s robotic hand, and tiny chips implanted in Copeland’s brain let him use his thoughts to move the Star Trek-looking metal arm attached to his wheelchair — and also let him feel subtle pressure in his own fingers when the artificial ones were touched.

He had “pretty impressive precision,” Obama said. “When I’m moving the hand, it is also sending signals to Nathan so he is feeling me touching or moving his arm.”

The president congratulated the University of Pittsburgh researchers who are developing the technology, saying, “what a story.”

The research is part of a quest to make artificial limbs that can feel. On Thursday, the Pittsburgh team reported important early findings: When they blindfolded Copeland, he could correctly identify which robotic finger they touched 84 percent of the time.

“The majority of them, it felt like a pressure or a tingling” in his own corresponding finger, said Copeland, 30, of Dunbar, Pennsylvania, who was left paralyzed after a car accident. When a researcher touched two fingers at the same time, “I just laughed and I said, ‘Are you trying to be tricky or something?”

Preparing to show the president how the cutting-edge research worked, Copeland said he was “circling between excited and nervous every half-hour.”

Harnessing brain waves to power prosthetics is a hot field, with a goal of giving the disabled more independence and improving artificial limbs for amputees as well. Headlines in recent years have reported experiments that let paralyzed people move a robotic arm to touch a loved one or take a drink simply by imagining the motion. Their thoughts activate brain implants that relay electrical signals needed to command movement. The signals are transmitted through a computer to the robotic limb.

What’s new is recreating sensation using this brain-controlled technology. After all, proper motion depends on more than muscle movement.

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