Smart artificial arm created at Ghent University Hospital is a world first


Surgeons at Ghent University Hospital (UZ Gent) have developed a unique artificial arm that is controlled by the brain, just like a normal arm. The treatment is unique because it combines two innovative techniques from orthopaedic surgery and rehabilitative medicine. The artificial arm is attached to the bone in the upper arm using an implant, and then remaining nerves are connected to the muscles. Other hospitals already offer these techniques separately, but UZ Gent is the first one to combine them. The benefits for the patient are considerable. The connection is stable, offers more freedom of movement and is more comfortable.   

Samy Meziani, a young man from Ghent, lost his right arm in an accident two years ago. Surgeons fitted a rod in the bone of his upper arm to which they attached the prosthesis. "This technique makes the prosthesis more stable and flexible," says rehabilitation doctor Sybille Geers. "Also the patient needs no help to put it on and remove it."

Surgeons then attached the nerves in the arm to Meziani's chest muscle. Now that the nerves have grown together, Meziani can use his brain to activate the muscles. Electrodes on the skin pick up the muscle signals, allowing him to guide the muscles concerned using his thoughts. After eight months of practice Meziani is now able to use his prosthesis quite intuitively just by thinking about the movement he wishes to make. "When I was first able to pick up a glass using my prosthesis, I just cried with joy," he said. Meziani can also move the individual fingers on his hand prosthesis while also twisting his wrist and bending his elbow.

The treating orthopaedic surgeon Wim Vanhove explains: "The combination of osseointegration and replanting the nerves means patients facing amputation high in the arm can still be given a stable prosthesis which they can use effectively. The patient is not only able to open and close the hand, but also simultaneously bend the elbow and twist the wrist. Replanting the nerves also reduces the risk of nerve and phantom pain. The success of this operation opens doors to new developments which will give patients more comfort and more freedom of movement. The opportunities evolve very quickly but further research is still needed."