This year is shaping up to be an exciting time for technology that enables people to communicate their thoughts via an electronic link. For the most part, this has involved the use of machinery to communicate a person’s thoughts to a machine – such as a prosthetic device. However, some researchers have gone beyond the field of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) and have been making strides with brain-to-brain interfacing (BBI) instead.
Back in February, a research team in Natal Brazil, led by Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University, managed to create a link between the brains of two laboratory rats. In the experiment, an “encoder” rat in Natal was placed inside a “Skinner Box” where it would press a lever with an expectation of getting a treat in return.
The brain activity was then recorded and sent via electrical signal which was delivered to a second “decoder” rat which, though it was thousands of kilometers away, interpreted the signal and pressed a similar lever with a similar a expectation of reward. This developmental milestone was certainly big news, and has led to some even more impressive experiments since.
One of these comes from Harvard University, where scientists have developed a new, non-invasive interface that allowed a similar thought transfer to take place. Led by Seung-Schik Yoo, an assistant professor of radiology, the research team created a brain-to-brain interface (BBI) that allows a human controller to move a portion of a rat’s body just by thinking about it, all without invasive surgical implants.
The new technique takes advantage of a few advances being made in the field. These include focused ultrasound (FUS) technology, which delivers focused acoustic energy to a specific point. Ordinarily, this technology has used heat to destroy tumors and other diseased tissue in the deeper reaches of the brain. Yoo’s team, however, has found that a lower-intensity blast can be used to stimulate brain tissue without damaging it.
In terms of the interface, a human controller was hooked up to an EEG-based BCI while the rat is hooked up to an FUS-based computer-to-brain interface (CBI). The human subject then viewed an image of a circle flashing in a specific pattern which generated electrical brain activity in the same frequency. When the BCI detected this activity, it sent a command to the CBI, which in turn sends FUS into the region of the rat’s brain that controls its tail, causing it to move.
Using six different human subjects and six different rat subjects, the team achieved a success rate of 94 percent, with a time delay of 1.59 ± 1.07 seconds between user intention and the rat’s response. Granted, it might not be quite the pinnacle of machine-powered telepathy, and the range of control over the animal test subject was quite limited. Still, the fact that two brains could be interfaced, and without the need for electrodes, is still a very impressive feat.
And of course, it raises quite a few possibilities. If brain-to-brain interfaces between humans and animals are possible, just what could it mean for the helper animal industry? Could seeing eye dogs be telepathically linked to their animals, thus able to send and receive signals from them instantaneously? What about butler monkeys? Could a single thought send them scurrying to the kitchen to fetch a fresh drink?
Who knows? But the fact that it could one day be possible is both inspiring and frightening!