CHICAGO — Among the things President Barack Obama mentioned Tuesday night that has amazed him over the last eight years is, as he put it, how science helped a paralyzed man regain his touch.
Obama was likely referring to an extraordinary medical effort that allowed a paralyzed man to use a robotic arm that he controls with his brain — an advancement built on research by a University of Chicago professor.
Sliman Bensmaia, a U of C professor of biology and anatomy, was part of the leadership team that developed a computer interface implanted into a 28-year-old man who was paralyzed in a car accident.
The project, led by Robert Gaunt of the University of Pittsburgh, involved electrodes attached to the man's brain in the areas responsible for hand movement and touch.
"I can feel just about every finger; it's a really weird sensation," said the patient, Nathan Copeland, according to a story published by the University of Chicago.
Obama met Copeland at the White House on Oct. 13 and fist-bumped him through Copeland's robotic arm. "I confess: I'm a science geek," Obama said during the event.
“Do you want to blow it up?” the president asked Copeland. “Let’s blow it up!” The two fist-bumped and Obama said, “Boo-yah!”
The arm was developed using years of research by the U of C's Bensmaia, who described Copeland's adaptation as "pretty astounding."
In experiments with monkeys, whose sensory systems closely resemble those of humans, according to the U of C story, Bensmaia "identified patterns of neural activity that occur naturally as the animals manipulate objects, and successfully recreated those patterns by directly stimulating the nervous system with electrical signals."
Obama used the medical success Tuesday night as one way his faith in America has been confirmed.
"Over the course of these eight years, I've seen the hopeful faces of young graduates and our newest military officers. I've mourned with grieving families searching for answers, and found grace in Charleston church. I've seen our scientists help a paralyzed man regain his sense of touch, and our wounded warriors walk again," said Obama.
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