Surgeons rewire man's nerves to help him regain hand movement

Surgeons at the Washington University School of Medicine rewired damaged nerves to build a new route between their patient's hand and brain.

A paralyzed man has regained movement in his hands after surgeons at the Washington University School of Medicine rewired damaged nerves to build a new route between his hand and brain. 

BBC News reported, "The 71-year-old man was involved in a car accident in June 2008. His spinal cord was damaged at the base of the neck and he was unable to walk. While he could still move his arms, he had lost the ability to pinch or grip with either of his hands."

To help the man regain some hand movement, surgeons used healthy nerves to bypass the damaged area and connect working nerves above his spinal injury to those in the anterior interosseous nerve in the forearm that ultimately controls hand movement, according to the Guardian.

The group documented the surgery for the Journal of Neurosurgery. The team said, "To our knowledge, this is the first reported case of thumb and finger flexor reinnervation after a spinal cord injury. While the results in this patient are usually modest, due to the severe joint stiffness, his function has improved significantly with his ability to feed himself."

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In a statement to the International Business Times lead author Susan E. Mackinnon said, "This is not a particularly expensive or overly complex surgery. It's not a hand or a face transplant, for example. It's something we would like other surgeons around the country to do."

The surgeons did note that the man had to go through extensive physical therapy after the operation to learn to use a nerve that usually helps him bend at the elbow, to now help him pinch objects with his hand.

Dr. Mark Bacon, the director of research at the charity Spinal Research, told the BBC, "One of the issues with techniques such as this is the permanence of the outcome - once done it is hard to reverse. There is an inevitable sacrifice of some healthy function above the injury in order to provide more useful function below. This may be entirely acceptable when we are ultimately talking about providing function that leads to a greater quality of life."