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Italian man may regain use of paralysed hand after nerve transfer from foot

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Canva Copyright An Italian man underwent a 12-hour operation which transferred the nerve from his foot to his shoulder.
Copyright An Italian man underwent a 12-hour operation which transferred the nerve from his foot to his shoulder.
By Giulia Carbonaro
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For the first time, doctors used the nerve meant to control one part of the body in the hope that it would be able to control another.

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An Italian man may regain the use of his paralysed hand after having surgery at a hospital in Turin that used nerves from his partly amputated leg.

Marcello Gaviglio, a 55-year-old healthcare worker, lost the use of both of his hands and had to have his left leg amputated after suffering a severe road accident five months ago.

He was travelling to work with his moped when he was hit by a motorbike that didn’t stop at a red light, suffering injuries to his brachial plexus - a network of nerves in the shoulder that carries the movement and sensory signals from the spinal cord to the arms and hands - and his left leg.

After amputating his left leg, the sciatic nerve that controlled his left foot was no longer needed, so the surgeons decided it could be transferred to Gaviglio’s shoulder area. The pioneering operation was successfully conducted on December 21.

“It’s the first time that someone transfers a component of the sciatic nerve to the brachial plexus,” Paolo Titolo, one of the micro-surgeons and neurosurgeons involved in the operation on Gaviglio, told Reuters.

According to a press release by Azienda Ospedaliero-Universitaria Città della Salute e della Scienza di Torino, the city healthcare services, the operation was the result of four years of intense research. It lasted a total of 12 hours.

Surgeons transferred a part of the sciatic nerve to the brachial plexus of the patient.
Surgeons transferred a part of the sciatic nerve to the brachial plexus of the patient.CTO Città della Salute di Torino

While Gaviglio is still unable to use his hand, Titolo told Italian news media that he was optimistic about the patient slowly regaining control of the hand. The healthcare worker will now undergo five months of post-operative care.

According to the surgeons, Gaviglio would first need to try to move his hand by thinking about his (ghost) foot and then, eventually, he may be able to move his hand thinking just about his hand. Titolo told Italian news media that the human brain has a wonderful adaptive capacity.

If successful, it would be the first time that a nerve that normally controls one part of the body can be used to control another.

“We think this is pioneering surgery because if it works, it means that the brain plasticity can also control other parts of the body that we didn’t expect and also opens new fields in neuro studies,” said Titolo.

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