The Worlds First Brain to Brain Interface!

Brain-ScanIt finally happened! It seems like only yesterday, I was talking about the limitations of Brain to Brain Interfacing (BBI), and how it was still limited to taking place between rats and between a human and a rat. Actually, it was two days ago, but the point remains. In spite of that, after only a few months of ongoing research, scientists have finally performed the first human-to-human interface.

Using a Skype connection, Rajesh Rao, who studies computational neuroscience at the University of Washington, successfully used his mind to control the hand of his colleague, Andrea Stucco. The experiment was conducted on Aug. 12th, less than month after researchers at Harvard used a non-invasive technique and a though to control the movement of a rat’s tail.

brain-to-brain-interfacingThis operation was quite simple: In his laboratory, Rao put on a skull cap containing electrodes which was connected to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine. These electrodes read his brainwaves and transmitted them across campus to Stocco who, seated in a separate lab, was equipped with a cap that was hooked up to a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) machine.

This machine activating a magnetic stimulation coil that was integrated into the cap directly above Stocco’s left motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movements of the hands. Back in Rao’s lab, he watched a screen displaying a video game, in which the player must tap the spacebar in order to shoot down a rocket; while  in Stocco’s lab. the computer was linked to that same game.

braininterfacing-0Instead of tapping the bar, however, Rao merely visualized himself doing so. The EEG detected the electrical impulse associated with that imagined movement, and proceeded to send a signal – via the Skype connection – to the TMS in Stocco’s lab. This caused the coil in Stocco’s cap to stimulate his left motor cortex, which in turn made his right hand move.

Given that his finger was already resting over the spacebar on his computer, this caused a cannon to fire in the game, successfully shooting down the rocket. He compared the feeling to that of a nervous tic. And to ensure that there was no chance of any outside influence, the Skype feeds were not visible to each other, and Stucco wore noise cancelling headphones and ear buds.

brain-activityIn the course of being interviewed, Rao was also quick to state that the technology couldn’t be used to read another person’s mind, or to make them do things without their willing participation. The researchers now hope to establish two-way communications between participants’ brains, as the video game experiment just utilized one-way communication.

Additionally, they would like to transmit more complex packets of information between brains, things beyond simple gestures. Ultimately, they hope that the technology could be used for things like allowing non-pilots to land planes in emergency situations, or letting disabled people transmit their needs to caregivers. And in time, the technology might even be upgraded to involve wireless implants.

brainpainting-brain-computer-interfaces-2One thing that should be emphasized here is the issue of consent. In this study, both men were willing participants, and it is certain that any future experimentation will involve people willingly accepting information back and forth. The same goes for commands, which theoretically could only occur between people willing to be linked to one another.

However, that doesn’t preclude that such links couldn’t one day be hacked, which would necessitate that anyone who chose to equip themselves with neural implants and uplinks also get their hands on protection and anti-hacking software. But that’s an issue for another age, and no doubt some future crime drama! Dick Wolf, you should be paying me for all the suggestions I’m giving you!

And of course, there’s a video of the experiment, courtesy of the University of Washington. Behold and be impressed, and maybe even a little afraid for the future:


The Future is Here: Painting with Thought

Heide-PfutznerIn 2007, when artist Heide Pfüetzner was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), she considered it a “personal catastrophe”. Given the effects of ALS, which include widespread muscle atrophy that affects mobility, speaking, swallowing, and breathing, this is hardly surprising. And yet, just six years later, an exhibit of her paintings made their debut; all created by her mind and a computer.

Known as “Brain on Fire,” the exhibit took place on Easdale, a small island off the west coast of Scotland, this past July. Those who visited the exhibit were treated to a vibrant display of colorful digital paintings that she made using a computer program that lets her control digital brushes, shapes, and colors by concentrating on specific points on the screen.

bmi_paintingPfüetzner, a former English teacher from Leipzig, Germany, “brain paints” using software developed by the University of Wurzburg and German artist Adi Hösle, along with equipment from biomedical engineering firm Gtec. Thanks to the equipment and software, Pfüetzner is able to paint using two monitors and an electrode-laden electroencephalogram (EEG) cap without having to move her hands or leave her chair.

While one screen displays the program’s matrix of tools, another functions like a canvas, showing the picture as it evolves. Images of the various tools flash at different times, and Pfüetzner focuses on the tool she wants to select, causing her brain activity to spike. The computer determines which option she’s focusing on by comparing the timing of the brainwaves to the timing of the desired flashing tool.

brainpainting_indexRelying on a Startnext crowdfunding campaign, Pfüetzner was able to raise the $6,500 she needed to hold the exhibit in Easdale. The money she raised through the campaign went toward printing and framing her work, as well as transporting her and her nursing team, as well as the medical equipment she needs, to Easdale, where the exhibit ran until July 25th.

Pfüetzner admits that prior to becoming ill, she was not too fond of technical equipment and did not like working with computers. But since she became acquainted with the new technology, an EEG cap and brain computer interface have become her everyday companions. Much like a canvas, brush and paint palate, “brain painting” has become second nature to her.

Heide-Pfutzner_paintingBetween her Startnext page and interviews since her exhibit went public, Pfüetzner had the following to say about her work and the software that makes it possible:

For the first time, this project gives me the opportunity to show the world that the ALS has not been the end of my life… BCI is a pioneer-making technology which allows me to create art and therefore, reconnect to my old life.

For some time now, Brain to Computer Interface (BCI) research has been pushing the realm of the possible, giving a man with locked-in syndrome the ability to tweet using eye movement, or a paraplegic woman the ability to control a robotic arm. And thanks to research team like that working at the University of Wurzburg’s labs,  the range of BCI applications for the paralyzed are quickly beyond text input and into the realm of visual art.

brainpainting-brain-computer-interfaces-3Though the life expectancy of an ALS patient averages about two to five years from the time of diagnosis, according to the ALS Association, some ALS patients, including physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, have far outlived that prognosis. given her obvious inspiration and passion, not to mention talent, I sincerely hope Pfüetzner has a long and productive career!

And be sure to enjoy this video from Heide Pfüetzner’s Startnext page. It contains a personal address in German (sadly, I couldn’t find an English translation), followed by members of the University of Wurzburg team explaining how “brain painting” works: