31 Aug Nathan Copeland: The First Human Cyborg
36-year-old Nathan Copeland has lived with a brain-computer interface (BCI) for more than seven years and three months. That’s the longest anyone has had an implant like this. A car accident in 2004 left Copeland paralyzed, unable to move or feel his limbs.
That Copeland’s implant is still working and hasn’t caused any significant side effects or complications is promising for the field. In 2014, he joined a study at the University of Pittsburgh for people with significant spinal cord injuries to see whether a BCI could restore some of his lost functionality. These implants translate his neural impulses into commands that allow him to control external devices; a computer, video games, and a robotic arm he can move with just his thoughts. It’s a sign that the devices, which have been developing since the 1960s, are moving closer to commercial reality for patients with severe disabilities.
However, questions remain about the long-term durability of the implanted arrays -how much their performance will erode over time and whether they could be upgraded. In Copeland’s case, his displays are still working, but not as well as in the first year after being implanted. “The body is a complicated place to put electronics and engineered systems into. It’s an aggressive environment, and the body is always trying to get rid of these things,” says Robert Gaunt, a biomedical engineer at the University of Pittsburgh and a Copeland’s research team member.
Nonetheless, scientists are trying to make implants last longer by experimenting with different materials. Some resources are trying out softer materials that may be able to better integrate into the brain than the rigid Utah Array.