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Mindcontrol.com? It works in the lab

| Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

NEW YORK — Shades of Darth Vader and demonic possession? Brain researchers say that for the first time, one person has remotely triggered another person's movement — a flicking finger — through a signal sent to him by thought.

The feat is less a conceptual advance than another step in the years-long progress that researchers have made toward 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 and more studies, can affect another brain.

Much of the research has been aimed at helping paralyzed patients regain some power of movement, but bioethicists have raised concerns about more controversial uses.

In February, for instance, scientists led by Duke University Medical Center's Miguel Nicolelis used electronic sensors to capture the thoughts of a rat in a lab in Brazil and sent via Internet to the brain of a rat in the United States.

The second rat received the thoughts of the first, mimicking its behavior. 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 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA.

For the new study, funded by the Army Research Office and other non-military federal agencies, University of Washington professor of computer science and engineering Rajesh Rao, who has studied brain-computer interfaces for more than a decade, sat in his lab on Aug. 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 actually 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 Seattle campus.

There, Andrea Stocco of UW's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences was wearing a purple swim cap with a device, called a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) 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's possible to capture one of the few easy-to-recognize 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 might one day be harnessed to allow an airline pilot on the ground to help someone land a plane whose own pilot is incapacitated.

The research has not been published in a scientific journal, something university spokeswoman Doree Armstrong admits is “a bit unusual.” But she said the team knew other researchers are working on this same thing and they felt “time was of the essence.”

Besides, she said, they have a video of the experiment which “they felt could stand on its own.”

All four of those reached by Reuters praised Rao, but some were uneasy with the announcement and one called it “mostly a publicity stunt.” The experiment was not independently verified.

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