First human brain-to-brain interface

August 28, 2013

University of Washington researcher Rajesh Rao, left, plays a computer game with his mind. Across campus, researcher Andrea Stocco, right, wears a magnetic stimulation coil over the left motor cortex region of his brain. Stocco’s right index finger moved involuntarily to hit the “fire” button as part of the first human brain-to-brain interface demonstration. (Credit: University of Washington)

University of Washington researchers have performed what they believe is the first noninvasive human-to-human brain interface, with one researcher able to send a brain signal via the Internet to control the hand motions of a fellow researcher.

Using electrical brain recordings and a form of magnetic stimulation, Rajesh Rao sent a brain signal to Andrea Stocco on the other side of the UW campus, causing Stocco’s finger to move on a keyboard.

While researchers at Duke University have demonstrated brain-to-brain communication between two rats, and Harvard researchers have demonstrated it between a human and a rat, Rao and Stocco believe this is the first demonstration of human-to-human brain interfacing.

“The Internet was a way to connect computers, and now it can be a way to connect brains,” Stocco said. “We want to take the knowledge of a brain and transmit it directly from brain to brain.”


The cycle of the experiment. Brain signals from the “Sender” are recorded. When the computer detects imagined hand movements, a “fire” command is transmitted over the Internet to the TMS machine, which causes an upward movement of the right hand of the “Receiver.” This usually results in the “fire” key being hit. (Credit: University of Washington)

Rao, a UW professor of computer science and engineering, has been working on brain-computer interfacing in his lab for more than 10 years and just published a textbook on the subject.

In 2011, spurred by the rapid advances in technology, he believed he could demonstrate the concept of human brain-to-brain interfacing. So he partnered with Stocco, a UW research assistant professor in psychology at the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

On Aug. 12, Rao sat in his lab wearing a cap with electrodes hooked up to an electroencephalography machine, which reads electrical activity in the brain. Stocco was in his lab across campus wearing a purple swim cap marked with the stimulation site for the transcranial magnetic stimulation coil that was placed directly over his left motor cortex, which controls hand movement.

Remote control

Rao looked at a computer screen and played a simple video game with his mind. When he was supposed to fire a cannon at a target, he imagined moving his right hand (being careful not to actually move his hand), causing a cursor to hit the “fire” button.

Almost instantaneously, Stocco, who wore noise-canceling earbuds and wasn’t looking at a computer screen, involuntarily moved his right index finger to push the space bar on the keyboard in front of him, as if firing the cannon. 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.”

The technologies used by the researchers for recording and stimulating the brain are both well-known. Electroencephalography, or EEG, is routinely used by clinicians and researchers to record brain activity noninvasively from the scalp.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a noninvasive way of delivering stimulation to the brain to elicit a response. Its effect depends on where the coil is placed; in this case, it was placed directly over the brain region that controls a person’s right hand. By activating these neurons, the stimulation convinced the brain that it needed to move the right hand.

Against your will?

Stocco jokingly referred to it as a “Vulcan mind meld.” But Rao cautioned this technology only reads certain kinds of simple brain signals, not a person’s thoughts. And it doesn’t give anyone the ability to control your actions against your will.*

Both researchers were in the lab wearing highly specialized equipment and under ideal conditions.

“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.”

Stocco said years from now the technology could be used, for example, by someone on the ground to help a flight attendant or passenger land an airplane if the pilot becomes incapacitated. Or a person with disabilities could communicate his or her wish, say, for food or water. The brain signals from one person to another would work even if they didn’t speak the same language.

Rao and Stocco next plan to conduct an experiment that would transmit more complex information from one brain to the other. If that works, they then will conduct the experiment on a larger pool of subjects.

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.

More information: research website.

* “Against your will” is vague and undefined in the UW statement and no evidence was presented for “no possible way” or that such a sweeping statement could ever be proven. The finger movements were in fact involuntary, and no evidence was presented that Stocco could block his finger movements intentionally (with his “will”).

“Unknowingly” is also undefined. It’s conceivable that a TMS device could be placed adjacent to a person’s head as a cure, or built into a brain-controlled game device, for example, so the person’s finger (or other muscle group) would in fact be unknowingly controlled.  And in another scenario, “willing participation” would of course not be required (such as in an interrogation with “highly specialized equipment”), although it might not be done unknowingly in all cases.