‘Your mind to my mind …’

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JOEL WILLIAMS [email protected]

Ever since the debut of the series Star Trek, people have wanted to create technologies that mimicked or surpassed those that Gene Roddenberry envisioned for the future, but most thought the tricorder, Dr. McCoy’s medical diagnostic tool, would come before the Vulcan mind meld.

Rice University is working on the creation of a headset device that aims to connect two brains, akin to Mr. Spock’s ability to telepathically link with other beings.

The MOANA headset will feature more advanced technology than shown, but will likely not have the secondary use of draining pasta.

The MOANA headset will feature more advanced technology than shown, but will likely not have the secondary use of draining pasta.

The project is part of DARPA’s Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3), which recently funded six teams to create a device capable of transmitting signals between brains, nonsurgically, at the speed of thought.

According to associate professor Jacob Robinson at Rice, the availability of the technology is much closer than we may think. “In four years we hope to demonstrate direct, brain-to-brain communication at the speed of thought, and without brain surgery,” Robinson said.

Rather than transmitting and receiving thoughts by touching a subject’s temples (or whatever the equivalent is on a Horta), researchers at Rice hope to transmit thought through a combination of red and infrared light, ultrasound, and electromagnetic energy.

Their device is called MOANA, which stands for “magnetic, optical, and acoustic neural access.” Concept images show a helmet-like design with optical and magnetic components. The optical component will contain ultrafast, ultrasensitive photodetectors and emitters arranged around the target area on a skull cap.

“Most of [the] light scatters off the scalp and skull, but a small fraction can make it into the brain, and this tiny fraction of photons contains information that is critical to decoding a visual perception,” said Ashok Veeraraghavan, co-investigator on the project.

The researchers will use gene therapy to read and “write” information. Neurons in target areas of the brain being read will be reprogrammed to create synthetic proteins designed to absorb light when a neuron is firing. The receiving brain will be reprogrammed to create proteins that tether naturally occurring or synthetic iron nanoparticles inside the neurons.

“We plan to use magnetic fields to heat the iron, which in turn will open the channel and fire the neuron,” Robinson said.

For perception to feel simultaneous, the system will have to respond in milli­seconds.

“Speed is key,” he said. “We have to decode neural activity in one person’s visual cortex and re-create it in another person’s mind in less than one-twentieth of a second. The technology to do that, without surgery, doesn’t yet exist. That’s what we’ll be creating.”

Photonics Media was unable to reach any Vulcans for comment.

Published: July 2019

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