Dr. Michael Boninger

Dr.  Maria Simbra, Health Editor from Pittsburgh’s local CBS channel KDKA, recently visited the University of Pittsburgh’s Rehab Neural Engineering Lab for an update on the work being done with the sensorimotor microelectrode brain-machine interface and generating ‘touch’ sensations.  She visited with Nathan Copeland who injured his spinal cord in a 2004 car accident, and he has been instrumental to the research in the lab.

Mr. Copeland has electrodes implanted in the parts of his brain that control movement and that process sensation. Not only is he able to pick up items just using his thoughts, he can feel them, too.  With the research team, he has been traveling to neuroscience meetings to demonstrate. He gets questions like, “What does it feel like, would you use it at home, is it hard, do you like it?”

“What it feels like is complicated. I would definitely use it at home. It’s not hard. It’s pretty fun most of the time,” Mr. Copeland said.

The research team is made up of many people and includes Robert Gaunt, PhD, and McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine affiliated faculty member Michael Boninger, MD, Professor and UPMC Endowed Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Medicine.  The team is excited to be getting a $12-million grant from a new funding source, the National Institutes of Health. It allows for two more participants in Pittsburgh, and two at the University of Chicago.

“We plan on being able to accelerate the science by learning from all four of those individuals at the same time,” said Dr. Boninger. “So, when I press on something, I get immediate feedback to how hard I’m pressing, and it modulates how hard I press. Or when I’m trying to button something, I know where my fingers are without having to look at them. And those are the really critical things we need to work on in the next several years. Even being able to reach out and pick up an object and bring it to you, to scratch your face to itch an itch without having someone do it for you, these are the sorts of things that are really meaningful to people who can’t move at all.”

The team hopes two additional participants step up to take part in the new, expanded study. Of course, it is a lot of time, repetition, and hard work, and the robotic component is only available in the lab and not at home. But previous participants have appreciated being a pioneer.

Mr. Copeland travels to Japan in April for another neuroscience conference. In the meantime, he continues with the groundbreaking work in Pittsburgh.

Watch Dr. Simbra’s coverage of this program here.

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