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Thought-powered bionic arm is a touch of genius

Francis Harris / London Telegraph | September 15 2006

American doctors yesterday introduced the world's first bionic woman and estimated the cost at just one per cent of the price tag for the fictional Six Million Dollar Man.

Appearing for the first time in public yesterday, Claudia Mitchell, 26, said that her new $60,000 thought-powered arm was "really cool" and had allowed her to reclaim her life.

"It helps overcome the psychological effects of amputation. It feels like I'm on the edge of technology," she said.

Ms Mitchell said that when her middle-aged doctors first dubbed her the "Bionic Woman", she had not understood the reference to the 1970s television series that originated with The Six Million Dollar Man.

She said the technology reminded her of Arnold Schwarzenegger's film, The Terminator.

But she added: "This is not the movies. This is really happening."

Ms Mitchell said the artificial arm operated like a normal human limb: "I just think, 'I want my hand open', and it happens."

Doctors said Ms Mitchell, a former officer in the US Marine Corps, had first made contact with them after reading about early bionic experiments on male patients.

The victim of a motorcycle accident that resulted in the amputation of her left arm, the device has changed her prospects. Next year, she plans to go to university to start a new life.

Ms Mitchell described the computerised and motorised arm as "experimental and temperamental", but she nonetheless described it as a marvel. "Before the surgery, I doubted I would ever be able to get my life back," she said.

"This arm has allowed me to return to a life that is more rewarding and active that I could have imagined. I am confident and independent."

The bionic limb works by rerouting nerves from the brain that once terminated in the hand. These are redirected from the shoulder to the chest, where they grow into the muscle.

From there, commands are directed to the bionic arm using electrodes.

Dr Todd Kuiken from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the leader of the medical team which developed the technology, said the electrodes communicated with a computer in the 11lb limb, which in turn is controlled by six small motors.

"The exciting thing about this technique is that we are not implanting anything into the body," he said.

It not only allows users to pick up relatively small objects like drink bottles, but also offers "sensory feedback" so that they can detect heat and cold. Doctors said the blend of surgery and engineering was in its early days, but future versions will provide a sense of touch.

The device costs about £32,000 and takes five hours to install in an operating theatre, though patients have to wait five months before the redirected nerves can be used to operate the arm.

The former marine said that for amputees, using the arm for everyday purposes such as reaching above their head marked an incredible advance. "Last night, I cut my steak for the first time," she said with a huge smile.

Dr Kuiken said the process showed such promise that later on this year it would be used to help seriously wounded American servicemen returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

At least 450 troops have lost arms in those conflicts and the doctors are now applying to join the Chicago programme to learn how to fit the limbs.

The first prototype bionic arm was fitted to double amputee Jesse Sullivan four years ago.

The device has been improved since then and the newest version is described as a revolution. Doctors are also working on the first bionic legs. Mr Sullivan said the limb was able to take a reasonable amount of punishment in everyday use.

It did not, however, match those of Col Steve Austin, the hero of the television series that starred Lee Majors.

"I don't really feel superhuman or anything," said Mr Sullivan.


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