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University of Utah to develop technology for bionic hand controlled by thoughts, gives feeling

SALT LAKE CITY — Matthew Beckstead wiggled his fingers and bent his wrist down, then up. He twisted his hand and even moved his fingers to a few guitar chords.

"When I'd move my pinky and the pinky would move, it was really emotional," he said.

It was the first time in 16 years Beckstead, 36, had seen or felt his hands move. It's a reunion researchers at the University of Utah hope to give others like Beckstead.

The university was awarded $1.4 million to continue research of technology called the Utah Slanted Electrode Array. It is a neural interface that uses 100 electrodes connected to the nerves in an amputated arm to create feeling and movement by thinking the action.

Gregory Clark, leader of the research team, hopes to "restore not only a sense of feeling, but a sense of feeling whole."

"That's the beauty of it. We don’t have to outsmart or replace the users brain," Clark said. "We just have to tap into the signals that the brain is sending, and we have to send it back signals that the brain can interpret."

It's his goal, along with other neuroengineers, material scientists, electrical and computer engineers, surgeons and rehabilitation specialists; to improve those translations and eventually join a physical hand that users can take home.

Clark said that in a year and a half, the team hopes to begin experiments with physical arms. And at the end of four years he said they hope the user could take the hand home to use in daily activities.

Beckstead was part of a study last October that tested the equipment by allowing him to control a virtual hand on a computer screen.

"It was some of the coolest stuff I've ever done," he said.

On Jan. 6, 1998, Beckstead was removing a billboard when he touched a powerline with a conduit pipe.

The fall from the billboard restarted his heart, but he lost both of his hands.

"There's days where I can't get the prosthetics that I'm using to do anything, and I just get irritated and depressed so I just take them off for a while," he said. "There's days that they'll work just fine."

Although daily activities like tying shoes became extremely difficult, Beckstead said, he would not change the accident. He said it made him a better, stronger person.

"It made me come up with a, don't ever put anything on the 'I can't do list,'" he said. "Because once it's there you can never take it off. You can put it on the, 'I can try to do' list or 'I can do' list. Don't ever put anything on the 'I can't.'"

Robert Jensen, 51, lost his hand in October 1992. He drove trucks for sanitation and one day attached a cable to a 10-yard dumpster from the back of his truck.

"The canister, the dumpster, came clear over and crushed my hand between it and the truck," he said.

Jensen had 12 surgeries to try to repair his hand, but eventually lost each finger, his palm and his thumb.

Twenty-two years after the accident, Jensen participated in the same study as Beckstead, and felt his hand again.

"I was able to actually see, you know, the fingers and the sensation of it," he said. "It was quite a reunion."

Jensen has phantom pains in his missing hand. He can feel charley horses, warm sensations, shocks and carpet burns. Clark said the team hopes that attaching an advanced prosthetic would alleviate these pains.

Jensen said this research would drastically change life for those who have lost part of themselves.

"I see people being able to have a wrist and move their fingers and have sensations if they want it," he said. "Being able to use their hand, maybe not like a normal hand, but pretty close."

Despite the surgeries and recovery time of participating in various research, Beckstead said he's happy to do it.

"Just like anything else in research, if you don't have your guinea pigs, it doesn't get done," he said.

He hopes to benefit other like him.

"With all these vets coming home that are missing limbs, me doing this research, they're not going to have to go through the stages that I went through of not really knowing how things worked," he said.