A paralysed man has experienced the sense of touch in his hands for the first time in more than 10 years thanks to a mind-controlled robotic arm.
Tiny chips implanted in Nathan Copeland’s brain bypassed his damaged spinal cord, relaying electrical signals governing movement and sensation to and from the arm.
In a medical first, the 30-year-old was blindfolded as researchers at the University of Pittsburgh touched the robotic fingers.
He identified the correct digit 84% of the time.
Mr Copeland, of Dunbar, Pennsylvania, said the majority “felt like a pressure or a tingling”, in his own corresponding finger.
The experiment is an early step in the quest to create prosthetics that can feel.
With research in its early stages he does not get to keep the robotic arm, but said he was proud to be helping to advance the science.
“Technically when it’s over, I will have netted nothing except having done some cool stuff with some cool people,” he said.
“It’s cheesy but, Luke Skywalker loses his hand and then basically the next day he’s got a robot one and it’s working fine.
“We have to get to that point, and to do that, someone has to start it.”
Harnessing brain waves to power prosthetics has been achieved before, with robotic arms being used to allow paralysed people to touch a loved one or pick up a drink simply by imagining the motion.
What is new about the research Mr Copeland is participating in is that scientists have been able to recreate sensation using the brain-controlled technology.
A sense of touch is vital, experts say, as it helps you naturally grasp with the correct amount of force, so as not to drop or crush the item you are holding.
Robert Gaunt, an assistant professor of rehabilitation who led the new study, said: “It’s not only that emotional connection we get.
“People have an incredibly difficult time interacting with objects, picking objects up, manipulating them, doing fairly basic things with the hand if they don’t have a very basic sense of touch.”