A ray of hope for those with complete paralysis: Australian surgeons have devised a way to restore tactile skills like brushing teeth, holding a drink, and even writing, Sky News reports. The technique allows surgeons to apply nerve transfers to spinal cord injuries for the first time. "We didn't invent nerve transfer," study leader Natasha van Zyl tells CNN. "We're the first to apply it to spinal cord injury in an extensive way." The approach sounds simple: Surgeons use a donor nerve to bypass the damaged area of a nerve and reanimate damaged muscles. They say it beats the traditional approach, of replacing damaged muscles with working ones that exist for other functions. "Nerve transfer is more supple and natural," says Zyl.
The Australian study saw 59 nerve transfers in 16 patients—10 of them with tendon transfers as well—resulting in 13 successful surgeries. Two years later, those 13 quadriplegics are seeing major improvements in hand functions that help them complete daily-life tasks. "It's made a massive difference to my life," says Australian Paul Robinson, 34, who landed on his head in a dirt bike accident. "I can do my toilet routine on my own. As a grown man, it was very demoralizing having someone help you go to the toilet." Zyl tells the Guardian that one patient, a former CEO, fought back suicidal thoughts after successful surgery. But doctors warn it's not a cure and more research is necessary to achieve a higher success rate. (Read more scientific study stories.)