‘Vulcan mind meld’ a first for humans

Researcher sent a brain signal via the internet to control the hand motion of a colleague sitting in a room on the other side of the campus

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 3:34am

Scientists said they have achieved the first human-to-human mind meld, with one researcher sending a brain signal via the internet to control the hand motion of a colleague sitting across the Seattle campus of the University of Washington.

The feat is less a conceptual advance than another step in the years-long progress that researchers have made towards brain-computer interfaces, in which electrical signals generated from one brain are translated by a computer into commands that can move a mechanical arm or a computer cursor - or, in more studies, can affect another brain.

Most research has been aimed at helping paralysed patients regain movement, but bioethicists have raised concerns about more controversial uses.

In February, for instance, scientists led by Duke University Medical Centre's Miguel Nicolelis used electronic sensors to capture the thoughts of a rat in a laboratory in Brazil and sent via internet to the brain of a rat in the US. The second rat received the thoughts of the first, mimicking its behaviour. And electrical activity in the brain of a monkey at Duke, in North Carolina, was recently sent via the internet, controlling a robot arm in Japan.

That raised dystopian visions of battalions of animal soldiers - or even human ones - whose brains are remotely controlled by others. Some of Duke's brain-computer research, though not this study, received funding from the Pentagon's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

For the new study, funded by the US Army Research Office and other non-military federal agencies, University of Washington professor Rajesh Rao, who has studied brain-computer interfaces for more than a decade, sat in his laboratory on August 12 wearing a cap with electrodes hooked up to an electroencephalography machine, which reads electrical activity in the brain.

He looked at a computer screen and played a simple video game, but only mentally. At one point, he imagined moving his right hand to fire a cannon, making sure not to move his hand. The EEG electrodes picked up the brain signals of the "fire cannon!" thought and transmitted them to the other side of the campus.

There, Andrea Stocco of the university's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences was wearing a purple swim cap, with a transcranial magnetic stimulation coil, placed directly over his left motor cortex, which controls the right hand's movement.

When the move-right-hand signal arrived from Rao, Stocco involuntarily moved his right index finger to push the space bar on the keyboard in front of him, as if firing the cannon. He said the feeling of his hand moving involuntarily was like 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.

Other experts suggested the feat was not particularly impressive. It is possible to capture one of the few easy-to-recognise EEG signals and send "a simple shock … into the other investigator's head", said Andrew Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh, who was not part of the research.

Rao agreed that what his colleague jokingly called a "Vulcan mind meld" reads only simple brain signals, not thoughts, and cannot be used on anyone unknowingly. But it may one day allow an airline pilot on the ground help someone land a plane whose own pilot is incapacitated.

The research has not been published in a scientific journal and the experiment was not independently verified.