Hand implant gives quadriplegics new grasp on life
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."
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.
"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
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
Correspondent Al Hinman contributed to this report.