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.
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."
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.”
The experiment has major limitations in that it can only be duplicated under controlled conditions: The two scientists were prepared in advance to use their minds to send and receive signals, and the pair was also specifically wired up to get just one person’s one finger to move, nothing more. In other words, this does not mean that it is now possible to make a person dance against their will, just by thinking about it.
Still, the scientists say that the experiment represents a push forward in a new research frontier that asks if our brains could supplant our limbs as our most direct means of interacting with the world. Next, the team is hoping to get more than just one finger to move, possibly asking two fingers to type out a word on a keyboard, Stocco said. In the future, their hope is that a surgeon could remotely communicate with someone at the scene of a car accident or that the concept could be of use in any situation “where a person has information that another person needs and that can’t be easily transferred,” says Stocco.
The technology that supports the brain-to-brain interface is not new. It is already used to allow paralyzed people to manipulate objects or have prosthetics patients think their foreign limbs into moving, an application that has been kicked into overdrive in recent years. In the most recent innovation, Dr. Nicolelis is leading a project to have a quadriplegic teenager make the first kick in the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, wearing a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton. If successful, it would be the first time that a person is able to mind-control two prosthetics in tandem, a feat that could render the wheelchair obsolete, Nicolelis told the Washington Post.
Meanwhile, other laboratories, including one at Samsung, are hoping to parlay that knowhow into revamping how users interact with their smartphones. Soon, these scientists hope, consumers won’t have to type out a text or tap the screen to open their email – they’ll be able to do it just by thinking about doing it. A similar application already exists in the video game sector, with companies NeuroSky and Emotiv both selling headsets that read brain signals to control games.
Still, our world is a long way from the strange one imagined in Total Recall or Inception, where brains are the malleable playthings of other people. Both the University of Washington experiment and future applications would be useless on an unwilling brain – for the technology to work, the person has to choose to allow his or her brain to be manipulated, says Stocco.