Brain dictates other’s actions in study

BY ELIZABETH POLISHAN
SCIENCE & TECH CORRESPONDENT

Scientists broke down the barrier between human brains with the first ever brain-to-brain interface.
Researcher Rajesh Rao transmitted a brain signal that traveled across the University of Washington’s campus via the internet August 12 and made his colleague, Andrea Stocco’s, hand move.

According to a University of Washington news release, Rao used only his mind to play a computer game.

The game required him to fire at a rocket, and he imagined moving his right hand to hit the “fire” button. The thought compelled Stocco, across campus, to hit the space bar on his keyboard and fire at a rocket on his computer — though Stocco was not looking at the screen and wore earplugs to cut him off completely from both Rao and the video game. Rao’s brainwave had successfully controlled Stocco’s body.

The software “uses simple physics” to transmit thoughts from one brain to another, to Chantel Prat, Ph.D., another researcher who worked on the project, said.

In order to successfully implement the brain-to-brain apparatus, Rao had to train his mind to produce brainwaves detectable to the computer.

On experiment day, Rao sat in one lab and wore a cap connected to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine, which measured the electrical activity in his brain and recorded it visually on a screen.

In another lab, Stocco fitted a swim cap amended with a transcranial magnetic stimulation coil (TMS) over the area in his left motor cortex that controls his right hand’s movements. TMS is a painless and noninvasive brain stimulation tool that substitutes electric with current-based stimulation.

According to the news release, Stocco described the sensation of involuntarily moving his hand like “a nervous tic.”

“It was both exciting and eerie to watch an imagined action from my brain get translated into actual action by another brain,” Rao said.

While rat-to-rat-brain and human-to-rat-brain interfaces have already been made possible, Rao and Stocco’s experiment represents a scientific milestone as the first time two human brains have been connected through thought alone.

However, although it involved two human brains, the experiment was not considered brain “communication.”

Because Rao’s signal produced an automatic reaction in Stocco which did not require any conscious interpretation on Stocco’s part, Duke University neuroscience professor Dr. Miguel Nicoleis said in a CNN article that “it’s like a technical trick” more than real communication. A computer could have triggered the same response.

Still, the brain-to-brain interface is the first step towards more impressive and complex interbrain communication.

For now, the brain-to-brain interface can only “read certain kinds of simple brain signals” but in years to come, the system may be able to transmit more complex cognitive actions.

Landing airplanes, dancing tangos and performing surgeries could all be transmitted purely between thoughts, as well as more abstract tasks, like communicating a desire to a person who speaks a different language without any vocabulary barriers or clarifying difficult math and science concepts without the hindrance of words.

However, the technology is by design noninvasive. This means that no person’s minds can control someone else’s without his or her will, nor can anyone read another person’s thoughts.

Exactly where this new technology will lead only time will tell but for now, science has a fascinating springboard from which to launch a variety of projects.

Contact the writer: elizabeth.polishan@scranton.edu

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