(CBS News) Doctors have successfully restored partial hand function to a quadriplegic patient, providing hope for many others who have lost the function of their arms and legs.
The case study was written about in the May 15 issue of the Journal of Neurosurgery. The 71-year-old patient had lost the use of his limbs during a car accident in June, 2008. Before the surgery, he could not move his fingers at all. Both hands had displayed muscle atrophy with joint stiffness in all fingers due to disuse.
The patient had healthy upper arm nerves, and because the injury was on the C7 vertebrae - the lowest bone on his neck - doctors were able to avoid operating on the spine. They bypassed the damaged nerve connection and connected his hands directly to the working motor control region of his brain, using a nerve transfer of a nearby motor nerve that's usually connected to the elbow.
Around eight months after the surgery, the patient was able to show some movement in his left hand. Two months later, there was some movement in his right hand. After a year of therapy, the patient was able to flex his thumb and index finger. He is still continuing therapy and is showing steady improvement. He can already feed himself (video below) and perform basic writing activities with his left hand, even though he was right handed before the accident.
Surgeons caution that this method will probably only work on people who have lower neck injuries in their C6 or C7 vertebra, according to a university news release. These are patients that still have shoulder, elbow and wrist function and just have lost the use of their hand. Unfortunately those with higher spinal cord injuries would not be eligible.
Because they used the nearby nerve instead of a complete nerve graft, recovery was much quicker and the surgery provided better results, HealthDay reported. There doesn't seem to be a time-frame for surgery to take place as long as the nerves are intact. But, the procedure does involve an extensive post-surgical physical therapy to re-teach the person how to recognize to use the rewired nerves.
To see the patient using his hands once again, watch the video from Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine: