Kevin Mauro: Building a Brain-to-Brain Interface

Grand Challenge Scholar Profile

  • Major: Biomedical Engineering; Neuroscience & Chemistry minor
  • Grand Challenge: Reverse-Engineering the Brain
  • GC Advisor: Dr. Miguel Nicolelis
  • Project Title: Brain Control of Three Arms by a Two-Armed Primate

By Kevin Mauro

A brain-to-brain interface connects one organism's brain to another to allow direct communication of neural data. Scary, right? But while words, vocal inflections and facial expressions are often misinterpreted, in a brain-to-brain interface, direct transmission of thoughts prevents any miscommunication. Not only is it faster, but it opens up a world of innovations for humanity. Imagine a military tactic where sensory information is received from a sparrow perched outside a terrorist compound. Picture the beauty of a dance ensemble where the performers, both human and non-human, are exactly on-point due to synchronization of their motor cortexes. Envision the phrase "seeing-eye dog" taking on a whole new meaning for the blind. The Grand Challenge Scholars program has inspired me to pursue a medical specialty in neurosurgery for this very reason. I want to conduct clinical trials in these and other emerging areas of neuroscience.

"Imagine a military tactic where sensory information is received from a sparrow perched outside a terrorist compound. Picture the beauty of a dance ensemble where the performers, both human and non-human, are exactly on-point due to synchronization of their motor cortexes. Envision the phrase "seeing-eye dog" taking on a whole new meaning for the blind. The Grand Challenge Scholars program has inspired me to pursue a medical specialty in neurosurgery for this very reason. I want to conduct clinical trials in these and other emerging areas of neuroscience."

My scholarship took me on an adventure to Brazil where the first brain-to-brain interface was constructed only a year and a half ago. The project was a brainchild of Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, my research mentor at Duke. I was lucky enough to be in Brazil for Dr. Nicolelis's presentation at the opening ceremony of the World Cup, during which a paralyzed teenager was able to stand up and kick a soccer ball through the use of a brain-controlled exoskeleton. This fall, I will be working in his lab for my third semester, answering questions like: "Can a primate's brain control more limbs than it already possesses?" "Does a brain-to-brain interface really entail brain *control*?" "Is the Turing model applicable to human cognitive processes?" (That is, will a computer ever simulate our thoughts?)

The GCS program has shoved me on a journey into the darkest realms of neuroscience, opened my eyes to a future populated with brain-controlled Bitcoin payments and overwhelmed me with ideas I never could have thought of before I began my research. Each of us is born with a potentially irreplicable super-computer inside our skulls, but are we even capable of harnessing its full potential? If a monkey's brain can control five arms, can a human brain control six? Who's to say that a human brain can't have its perceptual inputs split between two simple-minded creatures? Who's to say our thoughts can't all conjoin as one in a singular symbiosis? These ideas sound radical today—maybe even just science fiction. But if there's one thing I’ve learned as a Grand Challenge Scholar, it's that the future comes faster every day.

Read more about Kevin Mauro's research in a Q&A interview on the White House's blog in a post on the the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Conference.