In what they call "direct brain-to-brain communication in humans," researchers in Washington state say they've successfully passed signals from one mind to another via the Internet, without using surgical implants. In their test, two people collaborated on a task while sitting in different buildings, using only their minds.
"The Internet was a way to connect computers, and now it can be a way to connect brains," researcher Andrea Stocco says, in a release from the University of Washington. "We want to take the knowledge of a brain and transmit it directly from brain to brain."
But the researchers say that any talk of a "Vulcan mind meld" like that seen on Star Trek is wildly premature, noting that their work focuses on sharing brain signals, not actual thoughts.
Stocco and his collaborator, Rajesh Rao, conducted the experiment on themselves, using electroencephalography (EEG) sensors to detect signals in the sender's brain and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to stimulate a response in the receiver's brain. Both technologies are noninvasive, requiring contact only with the subjects' scalp.
To test their concept, the researchers used a video game that requires pushing a "fire" button to control a cannon. The sender, Rao, could see the game on a screen, but he had no way to fire. At the proper instant, he imagined hitting the 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," according to the school's release.
Here's how Stocco explains the sensation, in an interview with NPR member station KPLU in Seattle:
"My arm wanted to move by [itself]. It was actually moving. I saw it, like, lifting up and pressing the button," he said. "The feeling was that I was quite literally lending parts of my brain to somebody else."
On a website explaining their research, Rao and Stocco emphasize that the brain impulse was received "only indirectly through the changing magnetic field" of a coil that was placed over the part of the receiver's brain that controls hand movements.
And they say that as the sender became more adept at generating the signal, the overall success rate neared 100 percent — in their four sessions of testing, the test subjects achieved "close to perfect performance" in the final round.
Because the process doesn't involve implanting electrodes or other gear, the findings could represent a large step beyond existing research. As we reported earlier this year, scientists have previously used the Internet to pass signals between the brains of rats.
"The next phase of the study will attempt to quantify this transfer of information using a larger pool of human subjects," the researchers say.
With advances in how we understand the brain, and in computer technology, it's possible that the experiment's concepts could eventually help people perform tasks or communicate — after all, the brain signals don't rely on language.
The approach could also change the way people learn.
"Right now the only way to transfer information from one brain to another is with words," says Chantel Prat, who collaborated on the research (and who is married to Stocco). Noting that some processes are hard to verbalize, Prat tells CNET that brain-to-brain transfers of data could help, "especially when knowledge cannot be easily translatable into words."
In the university's release, Prat also says that we shouldn't start worrying about our bodies being hijacked by remote mind control just yet.
"There's no possible way the technology that we have could be used on a person unknowingly or without their willing participation," she says.
As with the research into communications between rats, Rao and Stocco's brain tests are partially funded by the U.S. military. They have also been aided by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Their pilot study has the approval of the University of Washington Institutional Review Board.
In addition to studying computers and the brain, Rao has also worked to interpret the 4,000-year-old Indus Valley script, a topic about which he delivered a TED talk in 2011.