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Hand implant gives quadriplegics new grasp on life

The device August 18, 1997
Web posted at: 11:00 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Quadriplegics, people paralyzed from the neck down, know they are lucky if they can breathe by themselves, much less ever regain any use of their hands. But a surgical implant approved Monday by the Food and Drug Administration promises to deliver just that.

The new electronic hand helps quadriplegics feed themselves, pour coffee -- even write a letter. Called the Freehand, the NeuroControl Corp. implant offers hope to about 54,000 quadriplegics in the United States who retain some upper-body movement, but cannot move their hands to perform the most basic of tasks.

"There are those people who've suffered spinal cord injuries for whom this device will allow them to do certain things for themselves that previously they could not do," said Dr. Michael Friedman, acting FDA commissioner. "Things such as eating, using the hand for personal grooming."

Demonstration of the device

The Freehand system uses electrical currents to stimulate muscles in the hand and forearm. A tiny pacemaker-like device, implanted in the chest, produces the electrical stimuli; electrodes are attached to the muscles of the patient's best hand.

Users undergo extensive training -- three months on average -- to learn how to control their hand movements with small shrugs of the shoulder. One shrug sends a signal to the hand, telling the muscles to pinch thumb and finger together. Another shrug tells the hand to lock in place until they're ready to move their hand again.

Cleveland-based NeuroControl, which makes the device, says it works best on those who retain limited use of their shoulders and upper arms. But it won't "replace the hand that they formerly had. There isn't a sense of feeling," Friedman said.

The FDA says the $50,000 implant promises to be the first in a line of increasingly sophisticated devices to force paralyzed limbs to work again.

the operation to implant the device

"You've seen Star Wars?" asked Dr. Dan Spiker, FDA's deputy neurologic devices director, referring to the movie trilogy where Luke Skywalker gets a fully working hand transplant. This first prosthetic hand "is rudimentary compared to that. But that's where we're headed. ... It's exciting."

Freehand won't help severely injured patients such as actor Christopher Reeve, doctors cautioned. But it does offer the potential of greater independence for some quadriplegics.

While the development is exciting for doctors and their paralyzed patients, physicians say it is equally important to prevent paralyzing accidents, and get the proper treatment for those who are injured.

NeuroControl is already working on a second-generation implant for the more severely disabled. It also is developing implants to restore leg functions and control bladder functions.

Doctors have hopeful words for patients who can't benefit from the newest technology. They say continuing research into nerve regeneration eventually could offer what current technology can't.

Correspondent Al Hinman contributed to this report.


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