Credit: Ben Northern (Flickr).Credit: Ben Northern (Flickr).

Neural Science is the dark side: Or Why We Can’t All Have Nice Things

by • May 5, 2014 • Cool Science, Franchesca Ramirez, Fun, Neuroscience, Star WarsComments (0)3510


By Franchesca Ramirez
Mind control is the dark side equivalent of the Jedi mind trick in the Star Wars megaverse. If there is anything that Vader in his multiple choke scenes has taught us is that mind control is awesome and we want. Since electricity is the currency of the brain there will be no mention of Midichlorians or The Force. While we aren’t quite telekineting a strangle in and across space, we are doing something akin to telepathing a coercion from one brain to another by harnessing knowledge of electrophysiology and computer science.

The first brain to brain interface (BTBI) brought to public attention came to us from the Nicolelis group in the Neurobiology department at Duke university. Although Miguel Nicolelis is better known for brain machine interface (BMI) tech and the Walk Again Project, his group’s work on BTBI technology proposes to create an organic computer able to solve heuristic problems considered non-computable by a general Turing machine- sure thing. Pais-Vieira and colleagues in the Nicolelis group at Duke conducted the BTBI experiments in awake, behaving rats chronically implanted with micro electrode arrays capable of neural ensemble recordings and micro stimulation in the primary motor (M1) and sensorimotor (S1) cortices of Long Evans rats. Briefly, an “encoder” rat performed sensorimotor behaviors where it selected from two choices of tactile or visual stimuli. Samples of neural activity in M1 and S1 of the encoder rats were transmitted to matching cortical regions of a “decoder” rat using intracortical micro stimulation (ICMS) while the encoder rat performed the sensorimotor behaviors. The decoder rat made identical behavioral selections significantly higher than chance, instructed by the information provided by the encoder rat’s brain. Criticisms from behaviorists and engineers include a need for further control experiments necessary to account for behavior phenomena like contingency degradation and communication issues like the low information transfer rate from brain to brain. Barring all the criticisms and call for additional control experiments, the line of research is compelling and Vader would rebut that he finds the scientific community’s lack of faith disturbing.

The truly provocative and interesting aspect of this study is the modulation of both behavior and neural activity between the rats during the decoder rat’s learning phase of the stimulus response contingency. Recall that neural information transfer occurs from encoder to decoder rats, however, neural information related to the decoder rats’ efficacy during the task was also sent back to the encoder rats as feedback and provided an extra reward to the encoder rat every time the decoder rat performed a trial successfully. Specifically, the encoder rats’ responded behaviorally faster and the signal to noise ratio of the neural activity extracted from the encoder rat’s M1 increased following a trial when the decoder rat made an error. This is a big deal- both behavior and neural modulations of the encoder rat depended on trial by trial behavioral efficacy of the decoder rat, suggesting that they were working together toward common ends. Pais-Vieira and colleagues observed that once encoder and decoder rats started working together both animals swiftly responded earlier, reduced response rates or even stopped performing according to the paired behavior and neural feedback. Now the question begs the answer, would the decoder rats’ efficacy on the task improve over time as shown by shorter latencies and more successful trails. Nicolelis told Nature News that its not the Borg and its not telepathy but that he and colleagues created a new central nervous system made of two brains.

The logical progression of science is to figure out how we (humans) would now hijack behaviors of other mammals for our purposes- or just mind control. At the heels of the Nicolelis BTBI magnum, Harvard professor of radiology Seung-Schik Yoo and colleagues developed the first human BTBI with a rat. The most interesting quality of this study is the use of non-invasive tech to achieve the goals. Broadly, Yoo and peers used Electroencephalography (EEG) to measure neural activity through human skulls and focused ultrasound (FUS) to beam an ultrasound signal that excites neurons in the motor cortices of rat brains. Human subjects looked at a computer monitor that flickered at a target frequency and activated steady-state visual evoked potentials (SSVEPs) when a green dot appeared on the screen. Increases of SSVEP amplitudes triggered FUS neuromodulation of an anesthetized rat which consequently led to the animal’s tail movement. By making use of computer-mediated interfacing of the neural signals between human and rat Yoo and peers were able to generate a simple motor response. It remains unclear the relevance that such findings possess in the clinic and Yoo and colleagues made it a point to make a disclaimer statement in the discussion of their Plos one pub: “…it is beyond the scope of this paper to address the particular moral and philosophical issues and complex challenges, possibly even undesirable consequences that may arise with the future application of this emerging technology.” Classic.

Finally, the most up to date attempt at human mind control is from University of Washington professor of Computer Science, Rajesh Rao and professor of Psychology, Andrea Stocco. They used EEG, brain computer interface (BCI) tech, transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS and Skype. In their August 2013 pilot study Rao’s and Stocco’s groups used Skype to coordinate and set each of them up in their respective labs. Rao acted as sender, donning a cap with electrodes connected to an EEG and Stocco the receiver, wearing his own cap marked with the stimulation site for the TMS coil positioned over his left motor cortex which controls movement of the right hand. Rao played a video game with his mind manipulating a cursor to hit the “fire” button when a cannon needed to be fired. Stocco did not play the video game yet reportedly moved his right index finger and manually pushed a space bar as if to fire the cannon at the same instant that Rao had done so across campus with his mind. Stocco found the experience of his hand moving uncontrollably comparable to a nervous tic. Rao on the other hand expressed that he found the event “both exciting and eerie to watch an imagined action from my brain get translated into actual action by another brain.” Although, this is a pilot study and proper experiments with adequate controls are the logical next step- the proof of concept inspires awe.

The complexity of research questions related to minds controlling other minds or, more practically, machines, will only increase. Already we have numerous nameless computer science, engineering, biology and psychology undergrad and grad students who write code for projects, translating brain signals into commands for other brains or machines. The forerunners in this field all speak of their findings with reverence, awe and always hint at the possibility of it’s uses for sinister purposes unless ethics happens. Neural Science is in fact the dark side and we love this.

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