Breakthrough: Robotic limbs moved by the mind

Humans can now move robotic limbs using only their thoughts and, in some cases, even get sensory feedback from their robotic hands

Scott Pelley: Just like your arms used to?

Jan Scheuermann: Yes.

We asked Dr. Ling, the program manager, where all of this is headed.

Geoffrey Ling: I'm old enough to have watched Neil Armstrong take that step on the moon. And, and to watch Jan do that, I had the same tingles. Because I realized that we have now stepped over a great threshold into what is possible. And very importantly, what patients can now expect in terms of restoration. This is a very important part. Not rehab, but restoration of function.

Scott Pelley: I wonder what your experience with Jan has taught you about the brain - and the brain's ability to adapt to new circumstances.

Geoffrey Ling: I think it's taught me something really fundamental, and that is we are tool users. And our arms and legs are just tools for our brain. And so when we give another tool, in Jan's case, a robot arm, she will adapt to that tool to do the things that she wants to do.

Of course, many who could use a robot arm are not paralyzed like Jan. They're amputees. And for them, the project has found a way to connect the arm without brain surgery.

58-year-old Johnny Matheny lost his arm to cancer. Dr. Albert Chi, from Johns Hopkins Hospital, found nerves that used to go to Johnny's hand and moved them to muscles in his remaining limb.

[Albert Chi: Now elbow extension.]

Sensors on his skin pick up the brain's signals from the nerves and use those signals to control the robotic arm.

[Johnny Matheny: Come here, I want to see you.]

Scott Pelley: So even though the limb is missing, the brain still sends the signals as if the limb was still there?

Albert Chi: Correct.

Scott Pelley: Johnny, it feels in your mind like your hand is there again?

Albert Chi: Yes.

Scott Pelley: As if your arm had never been lost?

Johnny Matheny: Correct.

Unlike Jan, the connection for Johnny runs both ways. Sensors in the fingers send signals back so he can feel what he's touching.

Scott Pelley: OK, I'm holding the object and you can close on it.

To see how well, we put him to the test.

Scott Pelley: Hard or soft?

Johnny Matheny: Soft.

Scott Pelley: Correct. Very good. Now let's try again. I'm holding the object. Hard or soft?

Johnny Matheny: Soft.

Scott Pelley: Yep. Quite right. All right.

He got it right every time.

Scott Pelley: Hard or soft?

Johnny Matheny: Hard.

Scott Pelley: Amazing.

The next person to have Jan's surgery will have additional sensors placed in the brain to receive the sensation of touch. Andy Schwartz believes that will help with some of the things that Jan has trouble with. For example, sometimes when she looks right at an object she can't grab it.

Andy Schwartz: OK. I'm going to take the cone away. Just go ahead and close it.

Jan Scheuermann: Oh sure, no problem.

Andy Schwartz: So as soon as I take the cone away there is no problem. But as soon as I put the cone there, she can't do it.

Why, is still a mystery.

The progress is coming rapidly. They are working on a wireless version of the implant to eliminate the connection in the skull. And Dr. Geoffrey Ling told us the lab experiments will one day enter the real world.

Geoffrey Ling: And we're going to not stop at just arms and hands. I think that it's going to open the way for things like sight and sound. And my dream, I dream that we'll be able to take this into all sorts of patients. Patients with stroke, patients with cerebral palsy, and the elderly.

Jan Scheuermann: I think when other quadriplegics see what I'm doing with the arm, they're all gonna say, "Oh wow! I wish I could do that!"

[Geoffrey Ling with Jan: Now this is the way I like to eat cookies. Awesome. Thank you so much. ]

Jan Scheuermann: And I just feel very honored to be the one who gets to do it.