Harnessing The Power Of The Brain

Scott Pelley Reports How Brain Computer Interface May Help The Paralyzed In The Future

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This story was first published on Nov. 2, 2008. It was updated on Aug. 6, 2009.

Once in a while, we run across a science story that is hard to believe until you see it. That's how we felt about this story when we first saw human beings operating computers, writing e-mails, and driving wheelchairs with nothing but their thoughts.

Quietly in a number of laboratories, an astounding technology is developing that directly connects the human brain to a computer. It's like a sudden leap in human evolution - a leap that could one day help paralyzed people to walk again and amputees to move bionic limbs. As correspondent Scott Pelley first reported last November, the connection has already been made for a few people, and for them it has been life changing.

Scott Mackler was a husband, father and successful neuroscientist when he received perhaps the worst news imaginable. At the age of 40, he could run a marathon in three and a half hours, but it was about that time he discovered he had ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease.

His brain was losing its connection to virtually every muscle in his body. The near-total paralysis would also stop his lungs. He didn't want to live on a ventilator, so nine years ago he recorded this message for his two sons: "I know the future holds lot of love and joy and pride and that life goes on and I'll be watching you along the way and I love you very much and I'll see ya."

Today, Scott Mackler's mind is sharp as ever, but his body has failed. Doctors call it "locked in" syndrome. Scott and his wife Lynn learned to communicate with about the only thing he has left, eye movement.

To signal "yes," Lynn says Scott looks at her; to signal "no," he looks away.

But recently Scott found a new voice. "Can everyone hear the PC? I apologize for the quality of the voice," he asked in writing.

Scott wrote these words, one letter at a time, with nothing but his thoughts and the help of what's called a brain computer interface or "BCI." He wears a cap that picks up the electrical activity of his brain and allows him to select letters simply by thinking about them. Then the computer turns his sentences into speech.

"I hate being helpless and when other people put words in my mouth," he wrote.

"Well, this is a very unusual interview for 60 Minutes. We've done something we never, ever do, and that is we've submitted the questions in advance because it takes Scott a little while to put the answers together using the BCI device," Pelley remarks. "Scott, I understand that earlier in the progression of this disease you said that, at the point you had to go on a ventilator you didn't wanna go on anymore, but today you are on a ventilator. And I'm curious about what changed your mind?"

"Because I can still communicate," Scott replied, with the help of the BCI device.

It isn't fast. It takes 20 seconds or so to select each letter. Scott told 60 Minutes it took him about an hour to write the answers to our 16 questions. But he writes well enough to continue his research and manage his lab at the University of Pennsylvania, where he still goes to work everyday.

"You use this system even to text your sons, for example. And I wonder what it would mean to your life today if the system somehow was taken away from you?" Pelley asks.

Scott says he couldn't work with BCI.

Asked what it has meant to their relationship, Scott's wife Lynn tells Pelley, "Well, he's happier. He can communicate with not just us, but with the world. This gave him his independence. His working, intellectual, scientist independence back."

The system was developed by neuroscientist Dr. Jonathan Wolpaw at New York State's Wadsworth Center.