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June 25, 2005, 7:14PM

Rewired nerves renew amputee's sense of feeling

His electric limb opens possibilities for a new range of treatment

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO - Jesse Sullivan has lost both arms at his shoulders, but with the help of a prosthetic hand and a set of rewired nerves, he can now feel � and sense hot and cold � almost as if he had real fingers.


Two years ago, experts thought this advance was at least a decade away. Now they see it as a leap forward in treating victims of stroke, lost limbs and paralysis.

Sullivan, 58, sees it as a step toward his fishing pole.

"That's where I'm going with it," Sullivan said at a news conference in Chicago. "And I think I'll be able to tie my own shoes."

Sullivan grinned as his doctor, Todd Kuiken, director of amputee programs at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, showed a video of Sullivan using his prosthetic left hand to pick up eggs without breaking them. He could feel how tightly he held the eggs.

Of course, his setup is different from a typical person's. A lineman for a Tennessee power company, Sullivan grabbed a high-tension wire carrying 7,400 volts of electricity, which incinerated his arms.

After the accident in 2001, Kuiken pulled out the four main nerves that used to connect to Sullivan's arms and fastened them beneath the skin on his chest.

Creative wiring

Sullivan's prosthetic has a computer in the forearm that is wired to a mechanical hand and to a "plunger" device on his chest. The hand sends signals up the wires to the plunger, which pushes the skin. That stimulates the nerves in his chest to transmit sensations to the brain as if the nerves were still connected to his real hand.

Last week, when Kuiken touched a spot on Sullivan's chest he said: "Oh, that's right between the finger and thumb on the back side of the hand."

Sullivan's brain interprets the signal as coming from the prosthetic hand.

"The first time I put this on, it was a feeling that's hard to explain," Sullivan said. "It lifts you up and gives you hope."

'Cheating' in a good way

Kevin Englehart, associate director of the Institute of Biomedical Engineering in Fredericton, New Brunswick, said he invited Kuiken to be the keynote speaker at the Myoelectric Controls Symposium this August because researchers see his work as a breakthrough.

"When I realized what it could do, I thought, 'This changes everything,' " Englehart said. "Todd's getting at the nerves that still contain information � information that normally would have been lost. He's really cheating, but in a good way."

Myoelectric refers to using electricity created in muscles to control outside electronic devices. In working with people who have lost whole limbs, doctors have been trying to figure out a way to control an elaborate prosthetic device with few remaining nerves and muscles.

Sullivan made the news two years ago when Kuiken succeeded in transmitting brain signals to the prosthetic arm through the same nerves. Sullivan had only to think about moving his arm, and it moved � although the process was tedious.

In the model introduced last week, six motors, including humerus and wrist rotators, allow him to move his elbow, shoulder and hand at once: He can put his hat on in one movement just by thinking about it.

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