How one 60 Minutes story can lead to another
Talk to any scientist and ask which area of research holds both the greatest mystery and potential reward and many will say the brain. We know the least about it, yet it holds secrets to identity, emotion, illness, consciousness, movement and addiction. As a producer at 60 Minutes I have always gravitated towards stories about the brain. Along with Dr. Sanjay Gupta I've reported on how the taste of sugar works on the brain's reward center -- in much the same as cocaine does.
Another story explored how college students taking Ritalin and Adderall may be altering their brain chemistry as well. Several years ago Anderson Cooper and I reported that some patients who had been in coma-like conditions for years were suddenly experiencing states of full awareness after taking drugs like Ambien. That led to the story "Awakening." In that report we met scientist Dr. Adrian Owen at Cambridge University who asked a patient, who was thought to be in a coma, to imagine playing tennis. An fMRI of the patient's brain clearly showed she had not only heard, but also responded to Owen's question. That story got me thinking -- if a person who appears to be in a coma can hear a question and respond to it, by imagining movement, could a method of communication be devised to reach these patients who have been cut off from the world?
Subsequent research led me to scientists at Brown University who were implanting electrode chips into people who were "locked in" -- meaning they cannot move or speak. Incredibly one woman named Cathy had undergone the surgery and could move a cursor on a computer screen simply with her thoughts. During that same story we met University of Pittsburgh neuroscientist Andy Schwartz. Back in 2008 Schwartz was implanting monkeys' brains with electrode arrays. He found that when a monkey thought about moving its arms (which were restrained) the monkey's brain cells, or neurons, would fire off electrical signals. Schwartz figured out how to capture those signals, send them to a computer for decoding, and then on to a robotic arm.
Correspondent Scott Pelley shook his head in disbelief when he witnessed the monkey operating a robotic arm with its thoughts. He asked Schwartz, "What are the chances a human being would be able to do this same thing?" Schwartz answered, "Oh, we think a human being could do much better." Unfortunately a lot of times scientists will claim advancements are five or 10 years off, but those advances never materialize. But after we witnessed the research in "Brain Power," we just had to find out if Andy Schwartz was right. For four years we've watched and waited as the research plodded on. Finally this year we were able to return to Pittsburgh and report on the latest "Breakthrough."
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