When Nathan Copeland came to, he knew he was paralyzed. Still in the driver’s seat, he looked at the fireman kneeling beside him and said, “I fucked my life up.” The fireman said, “Let’s get through right now.” A helicopter landed in the nearby baseball field. Copeland started crying. He hadn’t even wanted a driver’s license, but he needed one for the half-hour drive to Fayette, where he’d just started studying nanotechnology at a branch of Pennsylvania State University. He’d been rushing that night in the rain. He took a corner too fast. His tires hit mud, the car hit the guardrail.
Copeland was paralyzed from the chest down. He could move his arms, but his triceps didn’t work. He couldn’t move his fingers, so his therapists let them curl. This allowed him to pick stuff up—like a hooked cup—as long as it wasn’t too heavy. Over the years, he watched as his former friends hit all the milestones—graduate college, get jobs, marry, have kids. He participated in life as he could, often helping the Pittsburgh Japanese Culture Society with web work, since he can type with his pinky knuckles. But he sometimes felt useless.
All this changed in 2014, when at the age of 28 Copeland was selected to participate in a mind-controlled robotic-limb study at the University of Pittsburgh. This brain-computer interface works by hooking up the brain to an external robotic arm in a lab. Other people have controlled robotic arms with their brains, but Copeland was the first to receive signals back from the arm, enabling the sense of touch. In other words, Copeland is now able not just to move the arm, but feel with it.