Shades of Darth Vader and demonic possession? Brain researchers say that for the first time one person has remotely triggered another person's movement, a flicking finger, through a signal sent to him by thought.
On Aug. 12, University of Washington researcher Rajesh Rao sent the finger-flicking brain signal to his colleague, Andrea Stocco, in a demonstration of human-to-human brain signaling, according to a university announcement.
The announcement follows a rapid series of advances in the field of brain-computer interfaces, devices that read brain signals and typically try to translate them into motions in robotic prosthetic arms or legs. Paralyzed patients demonstrated the control of robot arms using signals from brain implants last year, for example. And researchers at Duke University and Harvard have demonstrated the transfer of brain signals between rats, and from a person to a rat, as well. So-called "transcranial magnetic stimulation," which sends magnetic pulses to the brain, has become a treatment for neurological ailments such as Parkinson's disease.
A video of the experiment released on the lab team's website shows Rao observing a cannon-firing video game while wearing an electrical brain-signal reading cap. By imagining his right finger flicking during the game, he triggered the actual motion in Stocco, who sat in a distant lab, wearing a cap designed to send magnetic stimulation signals to his brain. In effect, Rao's thought was transferred across the campus, via the Internet, to trigger the motion in Stocco, who described it as feeling like an involuntary twitch, according to the announcement.
"The Internet was a way to connect computers, and now it can be a way to connect brains," Stocco said, in a statement. "We want to take the knowledge of a brain and transmit it directly from brain to brain."
The researchers received approval from the university's medical ethics board before proceeding with the experiment.
"What they did is kind of like using a phone signal to trigger a magnetic jolt to the brain," says Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis. "It's not a true brain-to-brain interface where you would have communication of signals between people. This is one-way," Nicolelis says. "So, I would say it is a little early to declare victory on creating a true human brain interface."
"It's pretty wild, but it's real," says university spokeswoman Michelle Ma, about the human brain-to-brain result. The researchers plan to publish the result in a scientific journal, Ma says, but wanted to establish the priority of their claim in a fast-moving field by making the announcement now.