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Originally published August 28, 2013 at 8:21 PM | Page modified August 28, 2013 at 10:23 PM

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Vulcan mind meld? UW scientists connect two brains via the Internet

In what is believed to be a first, a University of Washington researcher was able to transmit signals from his brain across campus and cause a colleague’s fingers to move. But some experts aren’t impressed.

Seattle Times science reporter

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In an experiment that sounds like science fiction, a University of Washington researcher was able to transmit signals from his brain across campus and cause a colleague’s fingers to move.

The scientists believe it’s the first time two human brains have been directly connected via the Internet.

“It wasn’t spooky or weird at all,” said cognitive neuroscientist Andrea Stocco, whose hand twitched in response to brain signals from Rajesh Rao, professor of computer science and engineering. “It’s just like when you have a nervous tic.”

Several neuroscientists dismissed the experiment as little more than a publicity stunt, but Rao said one of the goals was to demonstrate it’s possible to meld minds in a very rudimentary way using what are now standard tools.

“We want to bring this conversation to the front, to discuss the ethical and moral issues that this kind of experiment raises,” Rao said.

Conducted earlier this month, the experiments grew out of Rao’s research on brain-computer interfaces that can allow paralyzed people and others to control devices with their thoughts.

In February, researchers at Duke University reported on their work connecting the brains of two rats, one in North Carolina and one in Brazil. When the first rat pressed a lever, signals from its brain were transmitted to the second rat, which mimicked the action.

And this month Harvard scientists reported transmitting brain signals from a human to a rat, causing the animal’s tail to move.

In both cases, electrodes were inserted directly into the rats’ brains.

The UW experiments didn’t involve any invasive probes — just silly-looking caps.

In his lab, Rao coated his head with conductive gel and pulled on an electrode-studded cap that looked like something the swimming movie star Esther Williams might have worn. Connected to a standard electroencephalography machine, the cap captured electrical signals generated in Rao’s brain.

Across campus, Stocco was wearing a cap with a magnetic coil positioned over the portion of the brain that controls hand movement. The coil was part of a transcranial stimulation system, another standard technology that uses magnetic fields to stimulate brain activity.

Stocco sat with his hand resting on a keyboard, unaware of when the experiment would start and unable to see or hear any of the other scientists.

Both men tried to remain perfectly still and empty their minds — which wasn’t easy, Rao said.

“You have to be very focused. My performance was very bad at first.”

Rao kept his eyes on a computer screen, where a simple video game was under way. He imagined moving the fingers on his right hand to fire a cannon and shoot down a target in the game.

Within less than 15 milliseconds — as the signal from Rao’s brain was transmitted across campus to the magnetic coil on Stocco’s cap — Stocco’s right hand moved, hitting the space bar on the keyboard as if he were the one playing the computer game.

“It was really exciting,” Stocco said. “It wasn’t my brain that was moving my hand, it was Raj’s brain.”

But many neuroscientists, including Lee Miller at Northwestern University, were unimpressed.

“This is another in a recent series of hyped neural interface ‘experiments’ that does very little to advance the state of our science,” he said. “As a classroom demonstration, it would undoubtedly be fun and instructive. Groundbreaking science it is not.”

None of the technology used in the UW experiment is new, Miller pointed out. Nor does the experiment provide any insights that might be useful in the quest to help patients with spinal-cord or other paralyzing injuries.

Philip Sabes, of the University of California, San Francisco, pointed out that the UW scientists announced the experiment with a news release and by posting videos and a description of the project, rather than submitting their results to a journal for peer review — the standard way in which scientists vet their research.

“While such demonstrations may be compelling to nonscientists, I am concerned that the publicity they garner has unwanted side effects in a false sense of progress for patients and their families or, for others, unwarranted fear that scientists are working toward ‘mind control,’ ” he wrote in an email.

Rao said he and his colleagues decided to get the word out quickly, rather than waiting more than a year to publish their results, because they feared getting scooped on a project they’ve been planning for two years.

The first set of experiments were simply a proof-of-principle, he said. Now that the team knows it will work, they plan to follow up with more extensive experiments and submit the results for peer review.

While the vision of one person’s brain controlling another person’s body conjures Mr. Spock’s Vulcan mind meld and the avatars of James Cameron’s blockbuster film, the reality is much less sexy and likely to remain so for a long time, Rao added.

“What we showed is that we have the technology to do a very, very simple form of direct brain-to-brain communication,” he said. “It’s a very small step.”

Sandi Doughton at: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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