Brain to brain interface means we can now control people’s movements with our thoughts

You know how you can call an IT support helpline and they’ll take control of your computer mouse? Well, this is kind of like that, only the mouse is your hand.

Researchers from the University of Washington have proved that it’s possible to control someone else’s hand movements just by thinking about it. The good news is you have to be connected to the internet and hooked up to a brain to brain interface, so someone can’t suddenly make you slap yourself in the street. (Yet.)

In their study, one person would be connected to an electroencephalography machine, which reads brain activity, translating it into electrical pulses. It transmitted these to someone on the opposite side of campus over the web. The second person wore a cap fitted with a transcranial magnetic stimulation coil near the part of the brain that controls hand movements.

When the first person focused on moving the second person’s hand, they were able to move it on several occasions. To definitively check that this was caused by thought waves rather than involuntary movements, the researchers tested this using a computer game in which the message-receiver had to fire a cannon. They couldn’t see the game, while the message-sender focused on moving the receiver’s hand.

If successful, the cannon would go off. While this didn’t always work (with accuracy just 25% for some pairs) the success rate was as high as 83% for other participants. The researchers were able to gauge that when it didn’t work, a sender hadn’t focused on the right command.

The team, led by associate professor of computer science and engineering Rajesh Rao, initially demonstrated that their interface could work last year, the first time two brains had ever been recorded to communicate in this way. They’ve now written a paper about their ability to replicate their experiment with a larger group, which is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Co-author Andrea Stocco says, ‘The new study brings our brain-to-brain interfacing paradigm from an initial demonstration to something that is closer to a deliverable technology.’

They’re just received a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to continue their research, and plan to try to transmit more complicated concepts from brain to brain without the need for speech. In future, this could help people who are unable to speak and even allow tutors to transmit info to students without the need for hour-long lectures.

Image credit: University of Washington.

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