How one scientist hacked another scientist's brain
Using already existing technology, University of Washington researchers have proved that it's possible to use one's thoughts to remotely control another person's body movements.
Two weeks ago, Professor Rajesh Rao sat in his lab at the University of Washington wearing a cap studded with blue and green electrodes. He thought about pressing the spacebar on his computer keyboard to fire a cannon in a video game. And as he thought that, Andrea Stocco, a colleague sitting in another lab on the university’s campus, involuntarily pressed his own keyboard's space bar.Skip to next paragraph
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Dr. Rao and Dr. Stocco have created what is believed to be the world’s first noninvasive human brain interface, which uses existing, but still cutting-edge, technology in a novel application. The experiment represents what the scientists call a forward movement in a fast accelerating field that aims to help us manipulate the world with just our brains.
"We wanted to show proof of concept," says Stocco, referring to the idea that it is possible for one human mind to connect to and instruct another. "We're not aware that anyone else has made a noninvasive brain interface between humans."
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The experiment, which was released as a video on the university’s website and has not been submitted for publication, comes about five months after Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis created a rat brain interface in which rats pressing a lever in one room commanded rats elsewhere to do the same. And the new interface also comes weeks after scientists at Harvard Medical School developed a noninvasive interface that allowed a person to "think" a rat’s tail into moving.
But in the latest project, it’s humans thinking other humans into moving, meaning that the experiment involves two humans “performing a meaningful and collaborative task,” Stocco says, noting that both participants, unlike the rats, were fully aware of the project at hand.
In his lab, Rao was hooked up to an electroencephalograph (EEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain, which was hooked up to the computer running the video game. He prepared his brain to send the correct signals: thinking about moving his finger to press the space bar would fire the digital cannon.
That activity was then converted into computer code and relayed over the Internet to another machine wired to Stocco, who had slipped on a blue swimming cap with a magnetic stimulation coil affixed over his left motor cortex. The two brains were, in effect, connected. So, when Rao thought about moving his right hand, Stocco’s moved.
“It’s actually not different from when you have a nervous tic,” says Stocco. “I saw my hand move, but I had no wish to move it. But it wasn’t spooky or particularly weird.”