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Wednesday, June 23, 1999 Published at 16:15 GMT 17:15 UK


Facing a remote control future?

Could our brains be conned into thinking a certain way?

Could computers one day control peoples' brains? Professor of Cybernetics at Reading University Kevin Warwick believes the latest developments in bionic technology could make that science fiction scenario possible.

Recently Dr John Chapin of the MCP Hahnemann University School of Medicine in Philadelphia demonstrated that signals from neuron groupings in rats brains can be used to control a physical device without the rats actually carrying out a physical action themselves.

A rat's brain, in common with that of a human, is merely a highly connected network of neurons (brain cells). When an individual decides to carry out a physical action this is indicated by neuron activity.

What Chapin showed by monitoring the activity of 32 neurons through implanted electrodes in rats was that brain activity occurred before any action was carried out, thereby acting as a predictor of things to come.

The power of thought

[ image: Prof Warwick:
Prof Warwick: "We must be aware of the pitfalls"
The rats had been trained to pull a lever in order to obtain water, but when their "thoughts" were electronically linked to the water release, they rapidly accepted that they didn't need to move the lever but could get a drink just by thinking about it.

For humans, spinal chord lesions, perhaps due to an accident, and numerous different neurodegenerative disorders can result in a fully functioning brain, which is unable to control a range of movements.

The possibility, in the future, of electrode implants being used to take brain signals directly where they are needed for muscle contraction and relaxation is clearly an exciting one. It should mean that by rewiring the human body (to an extent at least) movement could be restored to otherwise dormant limbs, bringing dignity and self-sufficiency back to their owners.

All that will be needed will be for the human to learn (anew) how to think in order to walk or wave their arm.

Certainly humans walking by thought power alone is a big step on from rats obtaining water via the same technique, but it appears to be natural progression - something that will happen before long.

However it is not merely walking that can be accomplished. Essentially, as long as an achievement is physically possible then there is no reason why we cannot learn to do all sorts of things just by thinking about them.

Driving a car, making a cup of coffee and operating a computer are obvious examples, although anything that requires movement and can be automated is fair game - and that means just about everything.

Two-way electrode street

It must be remembered though that electrode links can quite easily be, and almost certainly are, bi-directional. So whilst messages can be transmitted from a brain in order to shake a leg or put the kettle on, signals can also be sent into the brain, either from another person or from a computer.

For a rat this could mean that the creature is directed, by remote control, to a distant target, a passive being unable to overpower external drivers taking it in a direction not of its choosing.

Surely this couldn't happen to humans. Surely our brains cannot be conned into thinking in a certain way and to send out signals that cause us to do something that is beyond our control?

The simple fact is that, if Chapin's experiment shows us anything, it is that the remote control of humans is eminently possible. Whilst technological advance, of this nature, is very exciting in the short term, we must be aware of some of the pitfalls that might occur if we are not careful.

If our thoughts, or those of a rat, can be employed to get us a drink or to move an object or limb then all well and good. But if that means signals from another human or machine can directly affect the way our brain works then perhaps we should think again while we still can.

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