Across campus, Stocco was wearing a cap with a magnetic coil positioned over the portion of the brain that controls hand movement. The coil was part of a transcranial stimulation system, another standard technology that uses magnetic fields to stimulate brain activity.
Stocco sat with his hand resting on a keyboard, unaware of when the experiment would start and unable to see or hear any of the other scientists.
Both men tried to remain perfectly still and empty their minds — which wasn’t easy, Rao said.
“You have to be very focused. My performance was very bad at first.”
Rao kept his eyes on a computer screen, where a simple video game was underway. He imagined moving the fingers on his right hand to fire a cannon and shoot down a target in the game.
Within less than 15 milliseconds — as the signal from Rao’s brain was transmitted across campus to the magnetic coil on Stocco’s cap — Stocco’s right hand moved, hitting the space bar on the keyboard as if he were the one playing the computer game.
“It was really exciting,” Stocco said. “It wasn’t my brain that was moving my hand, it was Raj’s brain.”
But many neuroscientists, including Lee Miller at Northwestern University, were unimpressed.
“This is another in a recent series of hyped neural interface ‘experiments’ that does very little to advance the state of our science,” he said. “As a classroom demonstration, it would undoubtedly be fun and instructive. Groundbreaking science it is not.”
None of the technology used in the UW experiment is new, Miller pointed out. Nor does the experiment provide any insights that might be useful in the quest to help patients with spinal cord or other paralyzing injuries.
Philip Sabes, of the University of California, San Francisco, pointed out that the UW scientists announced the experiment with a news release and by posting videos and a description of the project, rather than submitting their results to a journal for peer review — the standard way in which scientists vet their research.