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

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Dr. Geoffrey Ling, a retired Army colonel and neurologist, is in charge. After seeing the wounded on several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he told his team that he wanted a breakthrough within five years.

Scott Pelley: Did any of them say, "Look, colonel, we're not sure we can do this."

Geoffrey Ling: Oh, absolutely.They, they thought we were crazy. But that's quite all right because I think it's in our insanity that things happen.

That madness led to genius in labs all across the country. At the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, Michael McLoughlin led the multimillion dollar engineering of what has become the most sophisticated hand and arm ever developed. It's the same size and weight of an average man's arm and hand and everything is inside--including the computers and the batteries.

Scott Pelley: Is there anything that your natural arm and hand can do that the mechanical hand can't?

Michael McLoughlin: Well, I can do this.

Scott Pelley: Okay. There's that.

Michael McLoughlin: We can't do that. But other than that, virtually everything your natural hand can do, this prosthetic is able to do. Same strength too.

Scott Pelley: Same strength?

Michael McLoughlin: Same strength. So we can curl 45-50 pounds with the arm.

They've thought of a lot of ways to use it. When set on wheels it can bring a human touch where no human can go.

In this demonstration, we wore a visor that showed us the video feed from the robot. These gloves moved the robotic hands. And we practiced pulling a wire out of a bomb.

Scott Pelley: Come on, give me that pinch. Awesome.

But the Holy Grail in the project was finding a way to connect the robot directly to the brain.

Jan Scheuermann: Who wouldn't want to do this? When they told me-- I heard about the study, I said, "Oh, absolutely." I-- I couldn't not do this.

Last February, Jan Scheuermann put herself on the line for a more sophisticated version of the surgery that they had done earlier in the monkeys.

Scott Pelley: There's a brain surgery involved. It's experimental. Why were you so excited about it?

Jan Scheuermann: I've always believed there's a purpose to my illness. I didn't think I would ever find out what it was in my lifetime. And here came this study where they needed me. You know, they couldn't just pick any Tom, Dick or Harry off the street. And in a few years, the quadriplegics and the amputees this is just going to help.The Department of Defense is funding some of this for the vets. To be of use to them and service to them, what an honor.

[Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara: What I'm going to do right now is I'm just going to make some marks here in your hair.]

The procedure was done by University of Pittsburgh neurosurgeon Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, who showed us that the area that controls hand and arm movement is accessible right on the surface of the brain.

Scott Pelley: What are the dangers?

Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara: We worry about if we were to accidentally tear a blood vessel when we were putting them in that we could cause a blood clot that would collect on the surface of the brain. Probably the thing we worry about the most is the possibility of infection.