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Monday, 25 June, 2001, 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK
Brain learns handy tricks
Chatelier AFP
Mr Chatelier's forearms were shattered by a homemade rocket
French neurologists studying an amputee who had donor hands grafted on to his arms say his brain has been surprisingly good at controlling them.

They say it is evidence that the human brain remains adaptable, even in adulthood.

Denis Chatelier, a French house-painter, lost both his hands in 1996 when a homemade toy rocket exploded. Four years later, on 13 January, 2000, a team of surgeons at the Lyon Edouard-Herriot Hospital performed the world's first double hand transplant on him.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the organisation of the patient's motor and sensory cortex before and after the hand graft surgery.

Before the transplant, the patient had been using a prosthetic device. Researchers noted that the regions of the brain which once controlled his hands had switched to controlling the movements of his elbows.

Undamaged brain

Further scans were done two, four and six months after the transplant. These showed that Mr Chatelier's brain had recognised the new hands, and its hand-control areas were gradually reverting to their original function.

The scientists at the French Institute for Cognitive Sciences say this shows how adaptable the brain remains, even in adulthood. Similar changes have been seen in stroke patients where, after an area of the brain dies, other parts take over its function; but this is the first time the effect has been seen in an undamaged brain.

It also demonstrates the skill of the surgeons in connecting Mr Chatelier's nerves with those of his new hands. A year after the transplant, the patient, who comes from Rochefort on the west coast of France, can use both hands to brush his teeth, hold a telephone and cuddle his children.

Angela Sirigu at the Institute for Cognitive Studies in Bron, France, and colleagues report their brain research in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

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