7 years and 3 months with brain chip

Nathan Copeland’s life changed radically twice. The first, in 2004, when a car accident left him a quadriplegic, completely paralyzed from the chest down.

Then, in 2014, when he became a kind of “cyborg”: he received a chip in his brain that allowed him to restore part of his movements. After a decade of immobilization, the implant now allowed him to send an electrical signal to a robotic hand, with an “almost real” feeling of touch.

What he had no idea is that he would become a record holder with this innovation. The chip is still working today, after seven years and three months. At 36, Copeland is the person to have had an implant like this for the longest time.

“When I started, they [os médicos e pesquisadores] They said, ‘Oh, it will probably last five years.’ This was based on ape data, because no human had ever done that,” Copeland said in an interview with Wired.

The chip is part of long-term research by the University of Pittsburgh, United States, for people with complex spinal cord injuries. Their longevity represents a major advance for technology — but other cases are still needed to be able to more accurately assess the real durability of these devices.

robotic fingers - UPMC/Pitt Health Sciences - UPMC/Pitt Health Sciences

Quadriplegic in car accident, boy regained sense of touch thanks to robotic fingers

Image: UPMC/Pitt Health Sciences

How it works?

The chip is a set of electrodes, the size of a pencil eraser, surgically installed in the motor cortex (a region of the brain responsible for planning, controlling and executing voluntary motor activities).

It can translate neural impulses into electrical discharges, which are carried by a cable running from the back of its head to a robotic arm. That arm has receivers that amplify the neural signals, and a computer that “reconverts” those signals into motion.

The implant, called the BrainGate, has the appearance of a hairbrush: a square grid of 100 tiny needles, each about 1mm long, along with conductive metal.

The boy received his first equipment in 2015 and three more throughout the study. Today, there are four active chips. He guarantees not to worry about doubts about the equipment’s longevity and any possible upgrade: “In five or ten years, if there is anything that has significant improvements, I would do the surgery again. Without a doubt.”

Quadriplegic Nathan Copeland stretches out his robotic hand with the power of thought - UPMC/Pitt Health Sciences - UPMC/Pitt Health Sciences

Copeland stretches out his robotic hand with the force of thought

Image: UPMC/Pitt Health Sciences

The history of brain implants

It is estimated that, today, more than 30 people worldwide have chips implanted in the brain.

Practical testing began in 2004, when Matt Nagle became the first person to use an interface to restore lost functionality due to paralysis. In his case, in addition to opening and closing a hand prosthesis, he was also able to operate a TV or directly trigger a computer (to view emails, for example)

The implant, however, was removed after one year, to comply with the protocol and research parameters.

Brain chip studies emerged in the 1980s, with Richard Norman, professor of bioengineering at the University of Utah. His goal was to restore sight to blind people.

Currently, scientists are looking for ways to improve implants and are studying different types of materials for their construction.

Blackrock Neurotech, for example, has tested a coating with a combination of parylene and silicon carbide to prevent corrosion over time. A group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is looking for soft materials, such as hydrogel, that have an elasticity similar to that of the brain.

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