The Future is Here: Brain to Brain Interfaces (Cont’d)

telepathyThis 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.

BMIThe 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.

BBIThe 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.

MMIUsing 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!


The Future is Here: Brain to Brain Interfaces!

?????????????????And I thought the month of February was an already exciting time for technological breakthroughs! But if a recent report from is any indication, February will go down in history as the biggest month for breakthroughs ever! Why just last week, researchers in Natal, Brazil created the first ever electronic link between the brains of two living creatures.

The creatures in question were rats, and the link between their brains enabled one to help the other solve basic puzzles in real time — even though the animals were separated by thousands of kilometers of distance. The experiment was led by Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University, a pioneer in the field of brain-machine interfaces (BMIs), and a team of neurobiologists who’ve been working in the field for some time.

BMIHere’s how it works: An “encoder” rat in Natal, Brazil, trained in a specific behavioral task, presses a lever in its cage which it knows will result in a reward. A brain implant records activity from the rat’s motor cortex and converts it into an electrical signal that is delivered via neural link to the brain implant of a second “decoder” rat. The second rat’s motor cortex processes the signal from rat number one and – despite being thousands of km away and unfamiliar with what rat one is up to — uses that information to press the same lever.

MMIBack in 2011, Nicolelis and his colleagues unveiled the first such interface capable of a bi-directional link between a brain and a virtual body, allowing a monkey to not only mentally control a simulated arm, but receive and process sensory feedback about tactile properties like texture. And earlier this month, his team unveiled a BMI that enables rats to detect normally invisible infrared light via their sense of touch.

However, this latest experiment really takes the cake. Whereas brain-machine interfaces have long been the subject of research, generally for the sake of prostheses, a brain-to-brain interface between two living creatures in something entirely new, especially one that enables realtime sharing of sensorimotor information. And while it’s not telepathy, per se, it’s certainly something close, what Nicolelis calls “a new central nervous system made of two brains.”

Obviously, this kind of breakthrough is impressive in its own right, but according to Nicolelis, the most groundbreaking application of this brain-net (or n-mind) is yet to come:

These experiments demonstrated the ability to establish a sophisticated, direct communication linkage between rat brains, so basically, we are creating an organic computer that solves a puzzle. We cannot predict what kinds of emergent properties would appear when animals begin interacting as part of a brain-net. In theory, you could imagine that a combination of brains could provide solutions that individual brains cannot achieve by themselves.

neural-networksNaturally, there are some flaws in the process, which were made evident by the less-than-perfect results. For starters, the untrained decoder rats receiving input from a trained encoder only chose the correct lever around two-thirds of the time. Those results could not be the result of random odds, but they are also a far cry from the 95% accuracy where the signals were reversed, going from the untrained decoder to the trained encoder. As any student of science knows, one-way results are not the basis of a sound process.

And I imagine the people who are lobbying to make biosoldiers illegal and limit the use of autonomous drones will be on this like white on rice! Hence why we can probably look forward to many years of research and development before anything akin to human trials or commercial applications of this technology seem realizable.

And of course, there is a video demonstrated the mind link at work. a word of warning first though. If you’re an animal lover, like me, the video might be a little difficult to take. You be the judge: