60 Minutes: Revolutionizing Prosthetics & Robotic Limb Brain Surgery


60 Minutes: Revolutionizing Prosthetics

Over 1,300 American soldiers have lost limbs over the past decade. This need has spurred the development of robotic limb technology. The real twist to the story is that these prosthetics can be controlled by the mind. But it never would have happened without a volunteer: Jan Scheuermann.

60 Minutes: Jan Scheuermann Spinocerebellar Degeneration

Scheuermann, a writer and mom of two from Pittsburgh, found herself at a turning point in life in the mid-1990s. Jan started to notice trouble with her legs, which turned out to be a genetic condition, Spinocerebellar Degeneration.


Jan is now 53, and she has limited control of muscles in her face and neck. She relies on a caregiver and her mother to get her through each day. Fate would cross her path with that of neuroscientist Andy Schwartz, on a Defense Department mission called Revolutionizing Prosthetics.

60 Minutes: Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory

60 Minutes: Revolutionizing Prosthetics & Robotic Limb Brain Surgery

60 Minutes shared innovative research to allow patients mind control over robotic limb prosthetics, as if they were human hands and arms. What will be next?

In 2008, Schwartz showed developments in robotics research using a lab monkey. Brain sensors can pick up signals and communicate them to a robotic limb. At that time, Schwartz predicted that human minds would do even better at controlling robotic limbs.


Dr Geoffrey Ling is leading the charge. Ling is a neurologist, retired from the Army, and he wanted to push for change to help the wounded coming home from combat. Ling admitted that he faced resistance and skepticism, but pushed forward with the program.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory was one place where a sophisticated arm and hand were developed, to be the same size and weight of the average arm and hand. These prosthetics have few limitations—this is the future that The Jetsons predicted, isn’t it?

60 Minutes: Prosthetic Limbs For Bomb Squads

Prosthetics can also be used for sensitive operations with bomb squads, providing yet another application in a situation that is often very unsafe for humans. Upon hearing about the opportunity, Jan Scheuermann signed up for experimental brain surgery to be an early human subject.

She said that she thought this was her purpose in having her genetic illness. She said that she felt fated to be in this position and help so many others who do not have use of their arms or legs.

60 Minutes: Brain Surgery For Prosthetic Limb

For neurosurgeons, the portal to control hand and arm movement is found at the surface of the brain. But there are always risks for complications, such as clots or accidental tears. Infection is also a serious concern, because it is brain surgery.

Jan’s surgery took six hours and placed two pea-sized sensors on her brain. These were then wired to pedestals that can help the sensors read her thoughts. Jan said that she woke up with a serious headache, but once that pain subsided, she had no regrets.

60 Minutes: Robotic Limb Range Of Motion

Five months after the procedure came Jan’s moment of truth. Jan showed off for 60 Minutes that she had an amazing range of motion with the robotic arm and hand, which was being controlled just with her mind.

Jan even shook hands and fist bumped with Scott Pelley to demonstrate how well it worked. She said that the process becomes automatic, just like moving a real limb.

60 Minutes: Robotic Limbs Restoration Of Function

What’s next? Dr Ling said that he feels there are great possibilities opening up for patients in terms of “restoration of function.”

He also said that he learned a fundamental truth: humans are tool users, and limbs are just seen by the brains as tools. That is why Jan was able to adapt and control her new robotic limb.

60 Minutes: Robotic Limbs For Amputees

For others, such as amputees, results can be achieved without requiring brain surgery. Doctors moved nerves controlling a cancer patient’s hand to healthy muscles in a different part of his limb.

Now he can control his robotic arm, and the brain adapts. This patient said that he feels like he never lost his arm. In this case, he can even feel things that he touches, determining whether objects are hard or soft.

60 Minutes: Robotic Limbs Touch Sensation

The next patient in the research project will also go through Jan’s type of brain surgery will also receive sensors for touch. That could improve on some of what they have learned through Jan’s trial and error process.

Sometimes Jan cannot grab objects that she is working with. Further innovations are yet to come, and Dr Ling promised that this could have implications for sight and hearing in the future. That could mean new hope for many categories of patients who never expected a fresh start.


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