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Researchers connect human brains via the internet

University of Washington

We’ve used the internet to connect computers, now how about using it to connect our brains? Researchers at the University of Washington have done just that in what they claim is the first ever brain-to-brain interface.

On August 12, researchers Rajesh Rao and Andrea Stocco sent a signal from one person’s brain, over the internet, to remotely control the hand movement of the other individual, making his index finger move on a keyboard.

Rao sat in his lab wearing a cap with electrodes hooked up to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine, which reads electrical activity in the brain. Stocco sat in his lab across campus wearing a swim cap marked with the stimulation site for the transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) coil that was placed directly over his left motor cortex, which controls hand movement.

Rao looked at a computer screen, playing a video game in his mind. When he was supposed to fire a cannon, he imagined moving his right hand causing a cursor to hit a button. Almost instantaneously, the researchers say, across the other side of campus Stocco’s right index finger involuntarily moved to hit a space bar, as if firing the cannon.

The team says Stocco was wearing noise-cancelling headphones and not looking at the computer screen when the experiment took place.

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This kind of one-way, brain-to-brain communication represents a big step forward in brain-computer interfacing, and the researchers want to take it even further, and attempt the creation of two-way communication.

But, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, Duje Tadin says that’s a long way off.

“I don’t really see this happening in my lifetime,” Tadin says.

But, he says if technology does advance enough to allow brains to communicate directly, some big ethical issues would be raised.

“If you could do that, then you really have an issues of free will. If you can control another being from long distance, then you really have an issue of is this person acting on his own behalf, or is he being controlled by someone else. And this really sounds like science fiction.”

At first blush, this breakthrough brings to mind all sorts of science fiction scenarios.

It may take years, but eventually Rao and Stocco say their breakthrough could allow a person with disabilities to communicate their needs, or it could be used by someone on the ground to help a passenger land a plane if the pilot becomes incapacitated.

University of Rochester researcher Duje Tadin says those kinds of applications would be very useful in many fields, but it requires the decoding of complex brain processes, and that’s a tall order.

“If you’re a really good pilot there’s going to be many different brain systems all working together at the same time, so if you want to turn a passenger into a really good pilot, you’ll have to figure out how to activate all those brain systems.”

Rao and Stocco are now looking to build on their breakthrough. They say the next step is to conduct an experiment that would transfer more complex information from one brain to another.

Copyright 2013 WXXI News

WXXI/Finger Lakes Reporter for the Innovation Trail