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Following the breakthroughs in prosthetics

Following the breakthroughs in prosthetics
Following the breakthroughs in prosthetics 06:34

This week on 60 Minutes, correspondent Scott Pelley reports on innovations in the technology of prosthetics. It is a subject he has been following on the broadcast for more than a decade. 

To mark the advancement in prosthetic technology, it helps to look at where it started. For decades, little was different in prosthetic limbs from those given to soldiers returning from World War II. That began to change in 2006, when the Defense Department launched a $100 million project called Revolutionizing Prosthetics.

Pelley first reported on the project in 2009. At the time, he interviewed engineer and inventor Dean Kamen, whose inventions at that point included the Segway and dozens of medical devices. After Kamen joined the Pentagon's project, he and his team of engineers spent a year working on the problem of revolutionizing the prosthetic arm. Kamen quickly saw it was an enormous undertaking. The human hand, he explained to Pelley, is a very complex machine.

"In terms of the engineering, what was the toughest piece of this?" Pelley asked Kamen in 2009, to which Kamen responded, "All of it."

US Army veterans Fred Downs and Artie McAuley at the Veterans New York Harbor Health Care System's Gait and Motion Lab in New York June 30, 2017.  Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

At the time, the new prosthetic arm was controlled by the user flexing their shoulder and pressing buttons built into their shoe. One of the people testing the invention was Fred Downs, the head of prosthetics for the Veterans Health Administration. Until that point, he had been wearing the same standard prosthetic arm since he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam—in 1968.

The technology was revolutionary. But he told Pelley he was initially doubtful. 

"Very, very skeptical," Downs said in 2009. "Because I've seen lots of inventions come along in my years of being in charge of prosthetics. And so, some great stuff. But in the long run, it doesn't really work because your body only has so much tolerance for gadgetry."

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

He met a woman named Jan Scheuermann, a mother of two from Pittsburgh. She had developed genetic disease called spinocerebellar degeneration, which broke the connection between her brain and body. Scheurmann could only move the muscles in her face and a few in her neck when she signed up for an experimental treatment at the University of Pittsburgh. There, doctors and scientists had also teamed up with the Defense Department's project.

An experimental surgery implanted two sensor arrays, each the size of a pea, on the surface of Scheurmann's brain. Then they were wired to two computer connections called pedestals. Within months, Scheurmann was able to control a robotic arm with nothing but her thoughts. 

Still, 11 years ago, technology had its limitations. Scheurmann could close open and close her robotic fist, but she had difficulties when it came to grasping an object, even if she was looking right at it.

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

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

"That's my fingers," Prestwood told Pelley. "I am feeling my fingers that I don't have anymore. I'm feeling them."

Scott Imbrie, a volunteer for a project at the University of Chicago, had his movement and sense of touch limited by a spinal injury from a car accident. Now, the ports in his skull communicate his brain's intention to a robot arm. The sensors in the robot hand then send the feeling of touch back into his brain. 

Computer ports in Scott Imbrie's skull are wired to the motor and sensory parts of his brain 60 Minutes

But today's technology may offer the greatest independence through no prosthetic at all.

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

But unlike Imbrie, the signals for motor control go not to a robot arm, but to his own arm. Sensors inside his arm fire his muscles, bypassing his damaged spine. This allows Beggin to do something that he had not been able to do in years—shake his father's hand.

"All I've ever wanted to do is just shake someone's hand and just tell them, you know, 'Hi.' Just simple hi," Beggin said. "But getting that opportunity to do it with my dad, it was, like, saying, 'Thank you for the last eight years of sticking this out with me.'"

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

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