The passing of pioneering brain scientist

A 60 Minutes producer remembers neuroscientist Dr. Scott Mackler, who we first met in 2008 during his struggle with ALS

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By Denise Schrier Cetta

During my 15 years as a producer at 60 Minutes, I've met hundreds of brilliant, courageous and inspiration people, but none has encompassed all three of those qualities more than Dr. Scott Mackler, pictured above with his family.

When we met Dr. Mackler in 2008, he had already been suffering from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, for nine years. Although he was unable to move anything but his eyes and a few muscles in his face, Dr. Mackler continued to work as a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania. Just how he did that was the focus of our story "Brain Power."

Dr. Mackler died Wednesday night at the age of 55.

Dr. Mackler was a pioneer in a field called Brain-Computer Interface (BCI). Because he could not move or speak, he used a device that picked up signals from his neurons, or brain cells. These signals could be translated into letters that Dr. Mackler used to communicate.

Our 2008 story, "Brain Power," revealed how BCI was quickly moving from the realm of science fiction into a scientific field that had practical applications for disabled people like Dr. Mackler.

Not content with just benefiting from technology himself, Dr. Mackler and his family created the Scott A. Mackler, MD, PhD Assistive Technology Program. In partnership with the ALS Association, the program provides assistive technology devices to those suffering from ALS so that they can lead more independent and fulfilling lives. Over the past 14 years the Scott Mackler Annual 5K run has raised nearly $2 million for the program.

The morning after our story aired back in 2008 I received an email from Scott. Written with nothing but his thoughts, a simple, gracious message: "You did a great job." The same thing could be said of Dr. Scott Mackler. 

The story doesn't end there.

After our 2008 story "Brain Power" aired, we decided to keep following the science of Brain-Computer Interface. We wondered, would the goal of having a human control a robotic arm with nothing but thoughts ever be realized? It didn't take long to find out. Last year we broadcast the story "Breakthrough." In it, viewers can see how Dr. Mackler's pioneering use of non-invasive BCI helped pave the way for an incredible merging of man and machine.