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Following advances in prosthetics

This week on 60 Minutes, correspondent Scott Pelley reports on innovations in prosthetics technology. It’s something he’s been pursuing in broadcasting for more than a decade.

To trace the progress of artificial technology, it helps to see where it began. For decades, prosthetic limbs were little different from those given to soldiers returning from World War II. That began to change in 2006, when the Department of Defense launched a $100 million project Revolutionary prosthetics.

Pelley first reported on the project in 2009. During that time, he interviewed engineer and inventor Dean Kamen, whose work at the time included the Segway and dozens of medical devices. After Kamen joined the Pentagon project, he and his engineering team spent a year working on the problem of revolutionizing the artificial hand. Kamen quickly saw that this was a huge undertaking. The human hand, he explained to Pele, is a very complicated machine.

“In terms of engineering, what was the hardest part of it?” Pele asked Kamen in 2009, to which Kamen replied, “Everything.”


U.S. Army veterans Fred Downs and Artie Macauley at the Gait and Motion Lab at New York Harbor Health Care System on June 30, 2017.

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

At the time, users of the new prosthetic hand controlled it by flexing their shoulders and pressing buttons built into their shoes. The man who tested the invention was one Fred Downs, chief of prosthetics for the Veterans Health Administration. Until then, he had been wearing the same prosthetic hand since he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam in 1968.

The technology was revolutionary. But he told Pele that he was initially skeptical.

“Very, very skeptical,” Downs said in 2009 “Because I’ve seen a lot of innovation in my years of being in charge of prosthetics. And so, some cool stuff. But in the long run, it doesn’t. Really work because your body has such a tolerance for gadgetry.”

The holy grail of the project was finally finding a way to connect the robot directly to the brain. That breakthrough came a few years later, as Pelley reported on air in 2012.

He met a woman named Jan Scheuerman, a mother of two from Pittsburgh. He was diagnosed with a genetic disease called spinocerebellar degeneration, which severed the connection between his brain and body. Scheuerman could only move his facial muscles and a few muscles in his neck when he signed up for an experimental treatment at the University of Pittsburgh. There, doctors and scientists also worked with Defense Department projects.

Jan Scheuerman, who has quadriplegia, uses a robotic arm to bring a chocolate bar to her mouth that she is manipulating with her thoughts.

Jan Scheuerman, who has quadriplegia, uses a robotic arm to bring a chocolate bar to her mouth that she is manipulating with her thoughts.


An experimental surgery implanted two sensor arrays, each about the size of a pea, on the surface of Scheuermann’s brain. They were then wired to two computer connections called pedestals. Within months, Scheuerman was able to control a robotic arm with nothing but his thoughts.

Still, 11 years ago, technology had limitations. Scheuerman could open and close his robotic fist, but he had difficulty grasping an object, even if he was looking at it.

Today, technology has advanced further. Now, people with spinal cord injuries and amputations can not only control prosthetic limbs with their minds—including grasping objects—advanced prostheses can also return the sense of touch to their brains.

Pele met Brandon Prestwood, who lost his hand in an industrial accident in 2012. The prosthesis is connected to a computer and to the muscles and nerves in his arm, and these connections have given him motor control of the hand and restored his sense of touch.

“It’s my finger,” Prestwood told Pele. “I feel my fingers that I no longer have. I feel them.”

Scott Imbry, a volunteer for a project at the University of Chicago, had limited movement and sense of touch due to a spinal cord injury in a car accident. Now, ports in his skull communicate with his brain intent on a robotic arm. Sensors on the robot’s arm then send the sense of touch back to its brain.


Computer ports in Scott Imbrie’s skull are connected to the motor and sensory parts of his brain

60 minutes

But today’s technology can offer the greatest freedom without any artificial devices.

Austin Begin became a quadriplegic after diving into a submerged sandbar while on vacation to celebrate his college graduation. Like Imbry, he has ports in his skull that connect to his brain.

But unlike Imbry, motor control signals go to his own arm, not a robot arm. Sensors inside his arms fire his muscles, bypassing his damaged spine. This allowed Begin to do something he hadn’t been able to do in years—shake his father’s hand.

“All I want to do is shake someone’s hand and just tell them, you know, ‘Hi.’ Just a simple hi,” Begin said. “But having the opportunity to do it with my dad, it was, like, ‘Thank you for the last eight years for sticking it out with me.'”

The video above was produced by Britt McCandless Farmer and Will Croxton. It was edited by Will Croxton.

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