First human-to-human brain interface achieved by UW scientists

By KRISTEN BUTLER,  |  Aug. 28, 2013 at 7:29 AM
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A University of Washington researcher has controlled his colleague's movement from across campus using the first human-to-human brain interface.

The non-invasive interface allowed Rajesh Rao to send a brain signal to Andrea Stocco from a remote location, causing Stocco's finger to move on a keyboard.

Research into brain-to-computer and brain-to-brain interfaces has been advancing for years. Recently, Duke University demonstrated brain-to-brain communication between two rats, and then Harvard researchers achieved a connection between a human and a rat.

Now, Duke researchers believe they have achieved the first human-to-human "mind meld."

Rao, a UW professor of computer science and engineering, has been working on brain-computer interfacing for more than 10 years, recently publishing a textbook on the subject.

To study brain-to-brain interfacing, Rao partnered with Stocco, a research assistant professor in psychology at the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

Rao wore a cap with electrodes hooked up to an electroencephalography machine, which reads electrical activity in the brain. Stocco wore a cap with a transcranial magnetic stimulation coil that was placed directly over his left motor cortex.

Neither participant could see or hear what was happening in the other lab.

Rao then played a simple video game in his mind, and when time came to fire a cannon, he imagined moving his hand on the keyboard without actually doing so. At the same time, Stocco's right index finger moved to tap the space bar, the key designated in the game.

Stocco compared the feeling of his hand moving involuntarily to that of 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. “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.”

"We plugged a brain into the most complex computer anyone has ever studied, and that is another brain," said Chantel Prat, Stocco’s wife and research partner who is an also assistant professor at UW.

“I think some people will be unnerved by this because they will overestimate the technology,” Prat said. “There’s no possible way the technology that we have could be used on a person unknowingly or without their willing participation.”

Their research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering at the UW, the U.S. Army Research Office and the National Institutes of Health.

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