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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Look Ma - No Hands!

According to studies done in both the US and UK, amputees may find relief in watching others rub their hands together.

It has long been documented that people who lose limbs or other parts of their body experience "phantom limb" phenomena - the sensation that the limb is still there. This most often manifests itself as phantom limb pain, a condition that is generally untreatable; while phantom limb pain is normal for up to six months following the injury, if it persists, the prognosis is not good. Traditional treatments include massage of the amputated area, surgery to remove remaining nerve endings, drug therapy, even biofeedback, but no clear-cut method stands apart from the rest as being more effective.

Using various methods, the study found that they were able to "trick" the amputee's brain into experiencing sensations in their phantom limb. Some patients even claimed their pain disappeared for up to 15 minutes!

The research sought to discover ways in which to trick "mirror neurons" - neurons which fire when a person intentionally performs an action, as well as when someone else is observed performing intentional actions, such as waving. Under normal conditions, these neurons help us predict others' intentions by simulating the action in the brain, but under the controlled conditions in the study, they were tricked into not sending a blocking signal to the brain, thus making the patient "feel" the observed action in/on his phantom limb. In this case, it was the intentional act of massage. The potential for such study goes beyond phantom limb pain: for example, stroke victims might be able to relearn movements simply by watching others perform them.

Many of these studies relied on hypnotic techniques meant to help the patient suspend his disbelief. As one expert put it, "...the patient has to accept the illusion is real for it to work."

© C Harris Lynn, 2008

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