(Photo via University of Washington)
A thought, a signal, a movement: a scientist at the University of Washington was able to elicit a simple, involuntary movement in another researcher across campus, using only his mind, some basic technology, and of course, the internet. This is the first time human-to-human brain interface technology has ever been accomplished.
Rajesh Rao, computer scientist and engineer at UW, has been studying brain-to-computer interfacing for a decade, having even authored a textbook on the subject. He was sitting in his office, hooked up to some relatively common technology, thinking about moving his right hand. Across campus, assistant professor of psychology Andrea Stocco’s right index finger moved involuntarily.
Stuck to Rao’s head were electrodes that picked up EEG readings. Electroencephalography, or EEG as it’s more commonly known, records and measures the brain’s electrical impulses in a non-invasive way. Rao was playing a computer game with his mind, sitting in his office in the Neural Systems Laboratory in the Computer Science & Engineering building on the UW campus.
Stocco, an assistant professor of psychology, was in front of a computer in his own office in the Cognition & Cortical Dynamics Laboratory. Covering his head was a device using transcranial magnetic stimulation, a device used to elicit small motor responses. It was placed directly over his left motor cortex, which controls hand movements in his right hand.
Rao thought about moving his right hand, a thought which, in the game he was playing, fired a virtual cannon. The signal was sent over the internet to the TMS device on Stocco’s head, which stimulated his left motor cortex, resulting in an involuntary jerk of his right index finger, causing it to hit the space bar of a computer keyboard in front of him.
An experiment like this has been done before, but not between two humans. Duke University researchers were able to wire two brains of living rats together via the internet. When one rat was stimulated to hit a lever in front of it, the second rat also moved its paw, but completely involuntarily.
Though it seems a little sci-fi now, there could be relevant applications for the future of this technology:
Stocco said years from now the technology could be used, for example, by someone on the ground to help a flight attendant or passenger land an airplane if the pilot becomes incapacitated. Or a person with disabilities could communicate his or her wish, say, for food or water. The brain signals from one person to another would work even if they didn’t speak the same language.
Until then though, we’ll keep the mind-melding up to the scientists.