- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 13, 2006

DAYTON, Tenn. (AP) — Jesse Sullivan has two prosthetic arms, but he has no problem climbing a ladder at his house and applying a fresh coat of paint.

His motions are coordinated and smooth because one of his artificial arms is a bionic device controlled by his brain. He thinks, “Close hand,” and electrical signals make it happen.

Doctors describe Mr. Sullivan as the first amputee with a thought-controlled artificial arm. Millions were spent on the technology, and a researcher says the retail price would be about $100,000 for a pair.

But doctors have asked him not to go easy on his experimental arm.

“When I left, they said don’t bring it back looking new,” said Mr. Sullivan, who lost his arms in May 2001 working as a utility lineman. He suffered electrical burns so severe that doctors had to amputate both his arms at the shoulder.

Most artificial arms today aren’t much better than the clumsy wooden prosthetics from a century ago. Artificial legs are simpler, but it has been nearly impossible to re-create the subtle and complex motion of a human arm.

The U.S. government, spurred by the number of soldiers who have lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan, is spending millions of dollars and working with universities and private companies to develop artificial limbs that connect body and brain.

The military’s research-and-development wing — known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA — wants to develop a mechanical arm that mimics the real thing by 2009.

DARPA gave the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel a $30.4 million contract to start the first phase of the four-year project. A team of 35 government agencies, universities and private firms hopes to deliver an early prototype by December.

“We’re excited about collaborating with the military and hope to be able to use this technology on our soldiers,” said Dr. Todd Kuiken, director of neuroengineering at the Center for Artificial Limbs at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, one of the partners in the DARPA project.

Dr. Kuiken developed the “muscle reinnervation” procedure that is key to the bionic arm.

For Mr. Sullivan, it involved grafting shoulder nerves to his pectoral muscle. The grafts receive thought-generated impulses to move the left arm and hand, just as a normal arm would.

“The nerves grow into the chest muscles, so when the patient thinks, ‘Close hand,’ a portion of the chest muscle contracts,” according to an institute fact sheet.

Dr. Kuiken and Gregory Clark, associate professor of bioengineering and prosthetics researcher at the University of Utah, describe the procedure on Mr. Sullivan as the first time such a graft has been used to control an artificial limb.

There’s still no sense of touch in the prosthesis, but Mr. Clark said researchers are working to change that.

Mr. Sullivan’s wife of 22 years, Carolyn, has to help her husband sometimes, but she doesn’t see herself as a caretaker because of the freedom the bionic limb allows him.

“It just didn’t seem that hard to adjust,” she said. “For some reason, we just sort of rolled into it. I just knew he wasn’t going to let anything keep him down.”

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