President Obama lauds Pitt’s neuroprosthetics: “This is what science does!"

First on President Barack Obama’s tour of scientific marvels in Pitt’s Alumni Hall at this month’s White House Frontiers Conference was a stop to shake Nathan Copeland’s hand.  Or rather, the robotic hand that Copeland controls through two tiny brain implants in his motor cortex.  A second pair, implanted in his sensory cortex, allowed Copeland to feel the squeeze.

Scientists Rob Gaunt, Jen Collinger and Sharlene Flesher watch President Barack Obama bump fists with the robot arm that Nathan Copeland controls with his brain

The President later spoke to a packed hall about Copeland, who has been paralyzed for a decade, as well as the science behind the young man's ability to both move and feel with neuroprosthetics – a first-ever for a person with quadriplegia. “This is what science does,” the President said. “Imagine the breakthroughs that are around the corner. Imagine what’s possible for Nathan, if we keep pushing the boundaries.”

Watch President Obama talk about science, technology, and Copeland and the robotic arm.

“I can feel just about every finger,” Copeland, 30, said early on in the experiment. “Sometimes it feels electrical, and sometimes it's pressure, but for the most part, I can tell most of the fingers with definite precision. It feels like my (own) fingers are getting touched or pushed.”

Research on the sensory component of Pitt’s work with brain-computer interfaces is headed by Robert Gaunt, PhD, a bioengineer and assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation. With lead author and PhD candidate Sharlene Flesher, Gaunt and colleagues described the research advance in a paper in Science Translational Medicine, published on-line on the day of the conference.  Gaunt and co-author Jennifer Collinger, PhD, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, discussed the work with President Obama during his meeting with Copeland. (Collinger is also lead author of a Lancet paper on earlier work with Jan Scheuermann, who later became the first to demonstrate the ability to control the arm’s elbow, wrist and fingers, all at the same time, with what’s called “10 degrees of freedom.”)  Surgery to implant the electrode arrays was performed by co-author Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurosurgery.  Michael Boninger, MD, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, and senior medical director of post-acute care for the Health Services Division of UPMC, was the sponsor of an investigational device exemption for the project.

See news coverage in the Washington Post, CBS Evening News, New Scientist, Nature, The Economist and Wired.

Pitt’s wide range of neuroprosthetics projects build on 30 years of basic research in the lab of Andrew Schwartz, PhD, distinguished professor of neurobiology and chair in systems neuroscience. The program has grown to include bioengineers, clinicians, computational experts and roboticists. 

The Henry L. Hillman Foundation recently provided funds for research to add artificial intelligence to the prosthetic system that Copeland and Scheuermann have used. This machine-learning boost will predict what a user wants to do with the robotic arm and hand, based on signals from the user’s brain. Schwartz, Collinger and Gaunt will work with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University on this project, which will smooth and speed movements that the user wants to make.

Read more about Hillman grants for Pitt neuroscience, here.

Authors of the Science Translational Medicine paper include postdoctoral fellow Stephen T. Foldes, PhD; staff engineer and master's student in bioengineering Jeffrey M. Weiss; graduate student John E. Downey; Sliman Bensmaia, PhD, of the University of Chicago; and Boninger, as well as Flesher, Gaunt, Collinger, Tyler-Kabara and Schwartz.