YOUR HEALTH: Restoring feeling in an artificial limb

DALLAS, Texas – The Defense Department is investing millions of dollars to design and build better prosthetics.  The goal is to improve the lives of wounded warriors coming home from battle.

But not just veterans are seeing the benefits.

For 13 years after losing his hand in an industrial accident, 45-year old Shawn Findley has been using prosthetics, which give him three basic motions.

"I can open and close and I've got a wrist rotator to turn the wrist," explained Shawn.

"This is a limited prosthetic, but it's very robust."

Last year as a volunteer in a research project, Shawn, who is also a preacher, was able to do much more.  And because of implanted electrodes, he could actually feel his missing hand.

"To be able to trigger those nerves and get feeling in parts of the hand, that was pretty surreal."

"We have a very, very specific approach, which is to place electrical interfaces inside the residual nerves that are still left behind in the residual limb after someone has an amputation," said Dr. Jonathan Cheng, associate professor of plastic surgery director, nerve lab chief of pediatric hand, peripheral nerve, and microvascular surgery UT Southwestern Medical Center.

The placement of the electrodes and more than 40 wires allowed researchers to send signals to the nerves to control individual fingers of a robotic hand, feel sensations of touch, movement and even a sense of where the hand is in space.

"And so if you can imagine what that might allow you to do, it would be things like playing the piano, or typing on a keyboard," said Dr. Cheng.

Shawn was in the study for three months.

FDA approval could be two years away.

Shawn knows he'll have to wait his turn for a long-term fix.

"I think we`ve got a lot of soldier boys that are coming home, they ought to be first in line.," he said.

NEW TECHNOLOGY:    The robotic hand system is state-of-the-art technology that has been around for a few years, but now, researchers have been working to connect these to patients.   By placing electrical interfaces inside the residual nerves left behind in the residual limb after the patient has an amputation, the electrodes interact with the nerve in which they are implanted.   This allows for the nerves to read out commands for controlling the individual fingers of a robotic hand by decoding the signals that are still inside the nerve.  It also 'talks' to the nerves by electrically stimulating them, and actually giving them various sensations of touch and movement.   Currently three different motions are available, without sensation.   Research is still being conducted on expanding the technology to hopefully one day give these amputees their sense of touch back.

Known now as the one-armed preacher, Shawn Findley served in the Army from 1993 to 1999.

His son now serves with the United States Marine Corps.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.