In spring 2015, more than 10 years after a car accident left him paralyzed from the shoulders down, Nathan Copeland had electrodes surgically implanted in the sensory cortex of his brain. Their purpose? To connect Copeland to a brain-computer interface developed by University of Pittsburgh researchers, based on science by Andrew Schwartz, Distinguished Professor of Neurobiology. The technology allows Copeland to control a robotic arm with his mind; it also allowed him to experience sensation through the robotic hand—a first for science. (You might have seen his fist bump with President Obama flashing across news screens in October.) A year and a half into his five-year role in the study led by Pitt’s Robert Gaunt and Jennifer Collinger (both of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation), we asked Copeland, now 30, for his thoughts on participating in groundbreaking research.
You put yourself on Pitt’s research participant registry right after your accident. Did you worry about what a potential study might entail?
From the beginning I thought that the registry was my best chance of improving my life—or someone else’s. When the researchers ran through the risks, I’d be like, Okay, those are possible risks for any surgery, not likelihoods. My mom was worried about it, though, and she boycotted taking me to my appointments at first. Now she’s figured out this is going fine, and it’s something meaningful to the world.
You’ve described the sensation from the robotic hand as being “electrical,” sometimes “a sort of pressure.” Does it meet expectations?
This is literally the first step in sensation microstimulation, so I wasn’t expecting a perfectly normal sensation. What we got is pretty good, [though] I can’t compare it to anything I’ve experienced in the real world.
You’ve been working with the research team about three times a week. How will you cope with losing sensation after five years, when your study time is up?
Beyond the fact that I’ve been doing this cool stuff and meeting cool people, it will be like losing function all over again. Ever since the beginning I’ve realized that’s going to be rough, and pretty sad.
What advice would you give study participants coming after you?
Even if the next step isn’t miles ahead of where I am now, the next person is still going to be able to do amazing things. To them I’d say, Just do it if you can.