Implant Device Treats Paralysis

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?Gentlemen, we can rebuild him: stronger, faster, better…we have the technology? was the axiom under which actor Lee Majors was transformed from a paralyzed accident victim into television?s cybernetic dynamo The Six-Million Dollar Man.

While existing biotechnology can not create cyborgs capable of Majors? superhuman feats, implants can improve the lives of the severely injured.

Ted Loosli is one such patient. Quadrapalegic since an ATV accident 13 years ago damaged his spinal cord, Loosli can?t do simple things like shave himself, type or pick up a cup. Loosli has said the thing he misses most is being able to hold a sandwich.

University Hospital surgeons have taken a step to help Loosli regain those basic functions by implanting him with a device to stimulate his paralyzed right hand and arm, allowing him to complete simple tasks.

The device, named Freehand, consists of eight electrodes in Loosli?s right arm and an implant in his left shoulder, which he can now shrug up and down at will. An external computer interprets his shoulder shrugs like Morse Code messages and transmits a programmed response to his right elbow, wrist, finger and thumb.

Loosli will have two rudimentary hand functions: a thumb/index finger pinch and a full-hand grasp. Loosli?s right arm already has a basic range of motion and Freehand is expected to permit him, for example, to brush his teeth.

Tuesday?s operation lasted eight and one-half hours. The University of Utah?s Douglas Hutchinson performed the surgery, assisted by Ohio physician Michael Keith, who helped invent the Freehand device.

Although physicians have performed more than 100 implant surgeries of this kind in the United States, this is the first such operation performed in the Intermountain West. Hutchinson said a procedure that implants 12 electrodes into the arm, affording even greater dexterity, is pending Food and Drug Administration approval.

Less than one-quarter of people with spinal-cord injuries qualify for a Freehand implant, since patients must be severely injured to require the technology, but not so injured that they can?t use the device.

Successful implementation of the Freehand device requires team work, Hutchinson said. U Hospital purchased five Freehand devices four years ago and was eager to see one implanted. The hospital?s rehabilitation staff will play a large role in Loosli gaining partial use of his arm.

Loosli is expected to wear a splint for at least four weeks, followed by intensive hand therapy, during which time Loosli and therapists will fine-tune his hand strength and manual dexterity. The lasting benefits of the implant will not be known for about four months, according to Hutchinson.