Spock may be exceedingly happy today since the “Vulcan mind meld” is now a reality for humans, thanks to University of Washington researchers who achieved the first noninvasive human brain-to-human brain interface. One researcher sent a brain signal via the Internet and his thoughts controlled the hand movement of a fellow researcher across campus.
“The Internet was a way to connect computers, and now it can be a way to connect brains. We want to take the knowledge of a brain and transmit it directly from brain to brain,” said Andrea Stocco whose finger moved on a keyboard in response to his colleague Rajesh Rao’s thoughts.
“It was both exciting and eerie to watch an imagined action from my brain get translated into actual action by another brain,” Rao added. “This was basically a one-way flow of information from my brain to his. The next step is having a more equitable two-way conversation directly between the two brains.”
On Aug. 12, Rao sat in his lab wearing a cap with electrodes hooked up to an electroencephalography machine, which reads electrical activity in the brain. Stocco was in his lab across campus wearing a purple swim cap marked with the stimulation site for the transcranial magnetic stimulation coil that was placed directly over his left motor cortex, which controls hand movement.
The team had a Skype connection set up so the two labs could coordinate, though neither Rao nor Stocco could see the Skype screens.
Rao looked at a computer screen and played a simple video game with his mind. When he was supposed to fire a cannon at a target, he imagined moving his right hand (being careful not to actually move his hand), causing a cursor to hit the “fire” button. Almost instantaneously, Stocco, who wore noise-canceling earbuds and wasn’t looking at a computer screen, involuntarily moved his right index finger to push the space bar on the keyboard in front of him, as if firing the cannon. Stocco compared the feeling of his hand moving involuntarily to that of a nervous tic.
“We plugged a brain into the most complex computer anyone has ever studied, and that is another brain,” stated Chantel Prat, assistant professor in psychology at the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. She doesn’t want people to freak out and overestimate the technology since, “There’s no possible way the technology that we have could be used on a person unknowingly or without their willing participation.”
Although Stocco jokingly called the human brain-to-brain interface a “Vulcan mind meld,” Rao said the technology cannot read a person’s thoughts. It also doesn’t give another person the ability to control your actions against your will; it can only read certain types of simple brain signals. The next experiment will involve sending more complex thoughts to another brain. If successful, then they plan to conduct experiments “on a larger pool of subjects.”
Before this successful human-to-human brain interfacing demonstration, a first of its kind, Duke University researchers established a “brain-to-brain communication between two rats” and Harvard researchers were able to show brain-to-brain communication between a human and a rat.
Examples of how direct brain-to-brain communication in humans might be used in the future include helping a person with disabilities “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.” Or if a pilot were to become incapacitated, then someone on the ground could send human brain-to-brain signals to assist a flight attendant or passenger in landing an airplane.