Man with a EEG on his head recording brain activity. He is looking at a screen.

An EEG machine picks up activity in the brain while a volunteer watches a video game. Image: University of Washington

Written by Julia Cleghorn

“Pass the salt, please.” We can direct other people’s behaviour by talking. And to talk, we have to think about what we want to say. But, what if you could skip the talking? Scientists are looking into the possibilities of one person controlling the movements of another – using only their thoughts.

Minds and hands

Researchers from the University of Washington hope to explore new ways for humans to communicate with each other. They have set up a demonstration in which a video game is played using the brain of one person – and the hand of another.

The researchers used two machines in the demonstration. The first, an electroencephalography (EEG) machine, picks up activity in the brain. The second, a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) coil, delivers information to another brain using pulses of electricity.

Game on

To play the video game, people had to fire cannons at the right time.

One volunteer, or ‘sender’, watched the game. When they thought about firing a cannon, their brain activity was picked up by the EEG. The electrical signals were sent to the TMS coil, which was positioned over the brain of the ‘receiver’ volunteer.

The receiver was sitting in another room with their hand positioned over the game’s control pad. When the TMS coil fired, the receiver’s hand moved, hitting the control pad and firing the cannon.

Just the beginning

Dr Marc Kamke, Research Fellow from the Queensland Brain Institute, says the demonstration is a good example of what neuroscientists can do and the techniques they can use.

Marc adds that the demonstration setup was novel, but doesn’t add a lot to what neuroscientists already know. The brain-to-brain connection was also very specific to the setup, and if the TMS was positioned over another part of the brain – for example, the visual cortex – it would have caused the receiver to see flashes of light.

The University of Washington researchers are next looking to transmit more complex processes, such as concepts, thoughts and rules.

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