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UW Researchers Use Brain of One to Control Body of Another

University of Washington
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.

Two researchers at the University of Washington have managed to pull off something right out of a sci-fi story: one used his brain to control the body of another.

The setup involved two labs on different ends of campus. In one lab sat the receiver, Andrea Stocco, with a device on his head that beams a focused magnetic field into his brain. Across campus, in another lab sat the sender, Rajesh Rao, wearing a cap outfitted with electrodes.“The question was whether we could transmit information from one person’s brain directly to another person’s brain,” said Rao.
They tested this by having Rao watch a simple video game on a screen: cannon versus pirate ship. When the moment came to fire the cannon, Rao imagined his right hand reaching out and tapping the spacebar.

A half-mile away, Stocco, who could not see the video game, hit the spacebar at the exact moment, prompting someone in the lab to yell, "Yes!"

So to recap: Rao had the thought. The EEG electrodes on his head recorded it, and software translated it into a digital message. That message zipped across the Internet, where it gave a command to the magnetic coil on Stocco’s head. That device zapped the part of his brain’s motor cortex that controls his right hand. And voila!

How did it feel for Stocco to have someone else’s brain control his own hand?

“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.”

The experiment is believed to be the first time one person has lent out part of his brain to another. It could open up all kinds of possibilities in the future – guiding an untrained person to pilot a plane in an emergency, for example. And yes, Rao and Stocco are well aware of how far-out this stuff sounds.

“The first thing that comes to mind is mind control,” said Rao.  

But they say this isn’t really a step toward some sci-fi dystopia. So far the method only works for very simple, yes-no type commands, and both participants have to be willing.