Carrying On With Bionic Arms

Jesse Sullivan demonstrates one of his prosthetic arms by using a paint roller on the side of his house, July 20, 2006, in Dayton, Tenn. His left arm is is a bionic device wired directly into his brain. Sullivan lost his arms in May 2001, working as a utility lineman. (AP Photo/Mark Gilliland) AP

Jesse Sullivan has two prosthetic arms, but he can climb a ladder at his house and roll on a fresh coat of paint. He's also good with a weed-whacker, bending his elbow and rotating his forearm to guide the machine. He's even mastered a more sensitive maneuver — hugging his grandchildren.

The motions are coordinated and smooth because his left arm is a bionic device controlled by his brain. He thinks, "Close hand," and electrical signals sent through surgically re-routed nerves make it happen.

Doctors describe Sullivan as the first amputee with a thought-controlled artificial arm.

Researchers encouraged Sullivan, who became an amputee in an industrial accident, not to go easy on his experimental limb.

"When I left, they said don't bring it back looking new," the 59-year-old Sullivan said with a grin, his brow showing sweat beneath a fraying Dollywood amusement park cap. At times he been so rough with the bionic arm that it has broken, including once when he pulled the end off starting a lawnmower.

That prompted researchers to make improvements, part of a U.S. government initiative to refine artificial limbs that connect body and mind. The National Institutes of Health has supported the research, joined more recently by the military's research-and-development wing, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Some 411 U.S. troops in Iraq and 37 in Afghanistan have had wounds that cost them at least one limb, the Army Medical Command says.

Although work that created Sullivan's arm preceded the research by DARPA, he said he's proud to test a type of bionic arm that soldiers could someday use. "Those guys are heroes in my book," he said, "and they should have the best there is."

"We're excited about collaborating with the military," said the developer of Sullivan's arm, Dr. Todd Kuiken, director of neuroengineering at the Center for Artificial Limbs at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, one of 35 partners now in a DARPA project to develop a state-of-the-art arm.

Sullivan's bionic arm represents an advance over typical artificial arms, like the right-arm prosthesis he uses, which has a hook and operates with sequential motions. There is no perceivable delay in the motions of Sullivan's flesh-colored, plastic-like left arm. Until now, it has been nearly impossible to recreate the subtle and complex motion of a human arm.

"It is not as smooth as a normal arm, but it works much smoother than a normal prosthesis," Kuiken said.

Sullivan lost his arms in May 2001, while working as a utility lineman. He suffered electrical burns so severe that doctors had to amputate both his arms at the shoulder.

Seven weeks later, due to what Sullivan calls being in the right place at the right time, he was headed to meet the Chicago researchers.

"Jesse is an absolutely remarkable human being, with or without his injuries," Kuiken said.

Sullivan said his bionic arm isn't much like the one test pilot Steve Austin got in the '70s TV series "The Six Million Dollar Man." "I don't really feel superhuman or anything," he said.

  • James Klatell

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