It may seem like science fiction or a nifty party trick, but two researchers say they were able to conduct a successful "mind control" experiment at the University of Washington.
They touted their work earlier this month as the first "non-invasive human-to-human brain interface," which basically means one researcher was able to move his partner's hand with only his mind and a lot of electrodes.
Experts believe the technology could someday help people with paralysis walk again or help people with prosthetics move their prosthetic limbs through their thoughts.
During the experiment, Rajesh Rao, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington, watched a video game and imagined moving his right hand to "fire" missiles in the game.
In a different room, Rao's partner, Andrea Stocco, a research assistant professor in the Cognition and Cognitive Dynamics Lab, had his right hand on a keyboard. Stocco's eyes were shut and he had noise canceling earphones on.
When Rao imagined moving his hand, electrodes "read" his brain waves and transmitted the signal to the stimulation cap worn by Stocco, the researchers said. A special coil placed over the area of Stocco's brain that controls motor functions "read" the signal and made Stocco's hand hit the keyboard. As a result, the missiles were fired in the video game Rao was watching.
Essentially, Rao thinking about firing the missile made Stocco's hand move to actually hit the button, the researchers explained.
"The Internet was a way to connect computers, and now it can be a way to connect brains," Stocco said. "We want to take the knowledge of a brain and transmit it directly from brain to brain."
Previous experiments have been able to show brain-to-brain communication between rats and even a human and a rat, but Rao and Stocco said they believed this was the first instance of human-to-human brain communication.
Rao said when the missile fired, he was still concentrating on the game and initially hadn't realized the experiment had worked.
"It's only later you realize what really happened was that the information had been extracted from my brain," said Rao. "It was both exciting to realize that … and somewhat surreal to see that's what had happened."
Rao said the technology could be used to help people who are paralyzed move specially made prosthetics or help people with "locked in" syndrome communicate through their thoughts.
Eventually, Rao said, the technology might even help the blind "see" by allowing either cameras or other people to "transmit" images directly into the visual center of a blind person's brain.
"[The technology is] not quite good enough to transmit images - but people are working on other technologies that [would be] precise enough to send images," said Rao. "That still [has] some ways to go."
After their successful bit of mind control, Rao said, the next step is to transmit more complex cognitive information. Basically, Rao hopes that he can "transmit" a specific question to Stocco, who can then type out an answer.
- Rajesh Rao