Brain's reaction to hand transplant

When he was 19, David Savage lost his hand in a machine accident. Thirty-five years later, he had a replacement hand installed. Amazingly, the same region that controlled his hand when he had one kicked right back into gear to deal with his new appendage. This surprised scientists because other research has shown that once a limb is gone, the associated brain region quickly picks up other duties. From Science News:
When Savage had both hands, part of his right brain responded to his left hand, and a corresponding part of his left brain responded to his right hand. After the amputation, that same part of his left brain would have been sensory-deprived and thus ready to adopt duties of adjacent sensory areas, such as those for the right arm and possibly his face.

Much animal and human research has documented that such neural reorganization begins within hours of limb loss or debilitation...

“It’s remarkable that an original neural pathway for the hand can be reinstated after years and years,” (Vanderbilt University neuroscientist Jon) Kaas says.
New Hand, Same Brain Map


  1. The transplant surgeon really couldn’t find a hand that was hairy enough to match this poor guy’s arm?

  2. #1: You use what’s “fresh” at the time, I suspect. He’s lucky his skin tone and the general proportions match so well.

  3. I think being able to transplant a hand is crazy cool, but that does look pretty darn Frankenstein-y.

  4. it makes me wonder what happens to dna in this case…
    so, basically he has the dna of 2 people?
    that’s kind of peculiar.
    I want to see what happens down the road w/ this.

  5. it makes me wonder what happens to dna in this case…
    so, basically he has the dna of 2 people?

    As with any organ transplant, the new tissue has the DNA of the original owner. That’s why transplant recipients have to take drugs to suppress their immune system to keep the body from rejecting the new organ. There are nasty side effects, but it probably beats missing a limb.

  6. Studying and working in the prosthetic field has only made me appreciate more how irreplacable natural human parts are. It’s really fascinating to observe and I wonder how this type of surgery will continue to improve.

    I wonder what percent of amputees ten years from now will opt for this surgery instead of a prosthetic device.

    I wonder if this guy was originally right-handed, lost his right hand and had to learn to write left-handed, and now can try to write right-handed again.

  7. “…It’s remarkable that an original neural pathway for the hand can be reinstated after years and years…”

    Why is that any more amazing than “the associated brain regions quickly picking up other duties”? It’s just a corollary to the other extreme that has been documented and accepted.

  8. I wonder what happens if he commits a crime. Fingerprints, you know.

    I smell a new CSI episode in the works.

  9. I don’t understand why that is surprising since the brain continues to “feel” in an area that has lost a limb.

  10. Does this mean nerves can be spliced then? If it does why can we not repair spinal injuries to regain some control of limbs they have already?

  11. WTF prosthetics still suck that much? People should be cutting off their hands to get the latest greatest synthetic.

  12. The neuroscientist VI Ramachandran’s book Phantoms in the Brain goes into great detail about the changes in the brain in the case of missing limbs. Some people with amputated feet experience a dramatic increase in length and intensity of their orgasms, and he speculates that this may be because areas of the brain that were once devoted to the foot are now freed up for other duties. (The surface areas of feet and genitals are mapped to adjacent parts of the brain, so it’s not that much of a stretch.)

  13. @22

    I doubt any nerves were spliced. The muscles that control the gripping of your hand are in the forearm. I imagine that they attached the bone and tendons. I would guess that he has no feeling in the hand or any sense of proprioception in the wrist and fingers.

  14. I know what my brain’s reaction to the hand transplant is! A simultaneous screech of OOH SCIENCE and EEK SCIENCE.

  15. children: this article IS a unicorn chaser. Listen to the old and smelly; things were not always as they are now, people died of toothaches for the god’s sakes! Show a little appreciation and awe, all you with the un-poxed skin, whole bodies and many teeth. Ingrates.

  16. ZUZU: If you are masturbating with someone else’s hand, technically, this is no longer masturbation. However, another way to describe the operation he underwent would be to say that he got a hand-job. =D

  17. The article pretty plainly states that monkeys were tortured and killed for the sake of bad science. Anti-vivisection organizations say that this is usually the case with animal testing. There is a financial drive to continue animal testing even when there is no science payoff, and there is no meaningful oversight. Even in public universities, animal labs are kept under tight security to keep out prying eyes. Publicity for their inhumane experiments is the last thing they want.

  18. @12 – Glanced at your profile because you mentioned working in prosthetics. If you want a wooden phone, you might find it easier to buy a spare shell, then take it to a wood shop and have them install a wood veneer of your choice on it, then replace the old shell with the new one.

    There are genuine wood veneers available, and they can be stained however you like and made to stick basically forever. Plus it’d be so much easier (and cheaper) than having an actual, solid wood shell built from scratch.

    Back on topic:
    It is very interesting, but it seems logical that a serious limitation like this, once corrected, can be re-learned relatively quickly. We are hard-wired to function with four limbs, so it shouldn’t take long for the brain to remember how to do it once the limb is restored. Further research and understanding will be interesting.

  19. ZUZU: Caught your reference initially, but it’s nice to have the convenient link to relive that golden moment of cinema. Still Raimi and Campbell’s finest moment. =D Thanks!

  20. I can’t imagine how the nerve endings could grow together to be fully functional.

    In the case of a man that had a double arm transplant, it was reported that it could take up to two years for the brain to be able to initiate finger movement.

    Still, it seems like implant science is advancing: now there’s face transplants, arm, and hand transplants, etc. All of this was impossible not long ago.

  21. @ #38, Thank you so much, that is an excellent idea and I will absolutely pursue it!

    @ #23, Consider it this way, prosthetics have come a long way; however, science is far from creating a limb that is anywhere near the folloing:
    1) Controlled by THOUGHT
    2) Powered by FOOD
    3) Healed/Repaired by SLEEP and TIME
    4) Instantly adjusts pinch pressure
    5) Independently controlls each finger
    6) Can be programmed for precise handwriting
    7) Can consistently send sensory messages to the brain of heat, pain, cold, wet, smooth, rough, sharp and react appropriately
    8) No training required to utilize these features
    9) FREE. OF. COST.

    Your hand is a wonderful thing! When it comes to quality of life, a transplanted organic hand has a lot to offer and I’m excited to see where the technology goes from here.

    :thumbs up: :)

  22. I read a similar story in a magazine where a woman had lost both hands at 19. She’s was in her late 40s or early 50s when she got two new hands that look whiter than the rest of her body and are said to be stiff looking in movements. It kinda grossed me out. With that lady, does that persons fingerprints become legally hers?

    Hands are very characteristic of the person they belong to, usually. You’ve heard of pianist hands, delicate hands, rough hands…and the fingerprints…it’s too personal, and the lifeline and heart line, head line, of each hand which shows each hand is’s creepy.

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