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Jesse Sullivan powers robotic arms with his mind

By Keith Oppenheim

Jesse Sullivan
Jesse Sullivan became a real life "bionic man" after a terrible electrical accident.

CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN) -- It's Sunday night, and my wife and I are watching "The Sopranos." This is appointment television. No calls, please.

Then my cell phone rings.

"Keith? It's Carolyn Sullivan," the caller says. "Tomorrow's no good. The forecast is calling for showers all day, and Jesse can't use his arms in the rain."

I was struck by the obvious. I am working on a story about a man who can control his robotic arms with his brain, a story that has been causing some havoc with my schedule. Although I didn't feel like changing flights, or missing my favorite TV show, one thing was clear: This story was getting more and more interesting. What can it be like for someone to make sure his arms stay indoors when it's raining?

For 59-year-old Jesse Sullivan, who lives in Dayton, Tennessee, it's all part of everyday life in. Jesse is a bionic man. Think science fiction.

In the 1970s TV hit, "The Six Million Dollar Man," astronaut Steve Austin learns to control high-tech artificial limbs after a terrible accident. The script for Jesse's life is not so different. In May of 2001, he was working as a lineman for a power company, when something went wrong.

"For some reason, I made contact with a live wire in the ground," he told me.

"How much electricity did your body take in?" I asked.

"Seven-thousand two-hundred volts," Jesse said. That's enough to power homes for 9,000 to 10,000 customers, he said, adding a bad shock -- enough to make you jump -- would be around 120 volts.

His arms were amputated. Jesse woke from a monthlong coma to discover his limbs gone, his life changed.

"I grieved over my arms like a death in the family," he said. "That's when it hit me. They're not coming back."

Jesse learned to use conventional prosthetics, by moving his back and pressing tabs with his neck. But doctors at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago thought he might make a good research patient -- and that instead of moving artificial limbs slowly with his body, Jesse could move them faster -- with his mind.

"We haven't spent $6 million yet, but we hope to!" said Dr.Todd Kuiken, director of amputee services at R.I.C.

Dr. Kuiken explained to me that, shortly after the accident, Jesse underwent surgery, and was essentially rewired. Live nerves that control arm and hand movements -- nerves that were severed -- were re-directed to Jesse's pectoral muscles in his chest. Electrodes were then attached to the chest, and connected to the robotic arm.

"Every time you contract a muscle, it emits a little electrical signal," said Dr. Kuiken. "So we can pick up that electrical signal from the muscle, and use that to go into a computer in the arm, and tell the arm what to do."

In other words, when Jesse tells himself to open his hand, his brain doesn't really know the hand is gone. It just sends a message to the nerve now in his chest. That makes a muscle contract. That sends an electrical signal to a computerized arm. And the robotic hand opens. Instantly.

"All I have to do is want to do it, and I do it," he says.

Jesse's brain now thinks that when his pectoral muscles move, his arm, wrist and elbow are moving. When Dr. Kuiken touches points on his chest, Jesse feels as if the doctor is touching his thumb, or the palm of his hand.

Now Jesse and his wife Carolyn make regular trips to Chicago for research. When Jesse is using what doctors call his "take-home" arms, the left limb is a conventional prosthetic with three motors.

Because it responds to his brain, Jesse can bend his elbow, turn his wrist, and open the wrench-like hand virtually at the same time. But in Chicago, Jesse experiments with a much more sophisticated arm with six motors. Talk about science fiction.

"It looks like something out of George Lucas," Jesse says. Indeed -- the contraption seems fit for a droid from "Star Wars."

With components from around the globe -- a hand made in China, a wrist from Germany, a shoulder from Scotland -- the six-motor arm can do more. Jesse can put on a hat, grab a pen, and coordinate multiple movements, simply by thinking.

But for now, that high-tech arm stays at the hospital. It's not ready for Jesse's life in Tennesee where he puts his take-home arms to the test by raking, painting, and doing chores around the house.

No, the international arm is still a prototype -- for research only, at least for now. Jesse Sullivan is philosophical. He seems to enjoy making a contribution to helping other accident victims learn how to use the bionic arms of the future.

"If this is all I ever get out of it, then this is my reward," he says. "I think this is just the beginning."

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