The Future is Here: First Brain-to-Brain Interface! a first amongst firsts, a team of international researchers have reported that they have built the first human-to-human brain-to-brain interface; allowing two humans — separated by the internet — to consciously communicate with each other. One researcher, attached to a brain-computer interface (BCI) in India, successfully sent words into the brain of another researcher in France, who was wearing a computer-to-brain interface (CBI).

In short, the researchers have created a device that allows people to communicate telepathically. And it’s no surprise, given the immense amount of progress being made in the field. Over the last few years, brain-computer interfaces that you can plug into your computer’s USB port have been commercially available. And in the last couple of years we’ve seen advanced BCIs that can be implanted directly into your brain.

BCICreating a brain-to-brain connection is a bit more difficult though, as it requires that brain activity not only be read, but inputted into someone else’s brain. Now, however, a team of international researchers have cracked it. On the BCI side of things, the researchers used a fairly standard EEG (electroencephalogram) from Neuroelectrics. For the CBI, which requires a more involved setup, a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) rig was used.

To break the process down, the BCI reads the sender’s thoughts, like to move their hands or feet, which are then broken down into binary 1s and 0s. These encoded thoughts are then transmitted via the internet (or some other network) to the recipient, who is wearing a TMS. The TMS is focused on the recipient’s visual cortex, and it receives a “1″ from the sender, it stimulates a region in the visual cortex that produces a phosphene. is a phenomenon whereby a person sees flashes of light, without light actually hitting the retina. The recipient “sees” these phosphenes at the bottom of their visual field, and by decoding the flashes — phosphene flash = 1, no phosphene = 0 — the recipient can “read” the word being sent. While this is certainly a rather complex way of sending messages from one brain to another, for now, it is truly state of the art.

TMS is somewhat similar to TDCS (transcranial direct-current stimulation), in that it can stimulate regions of neurons in your brain. But instead of electrical current, it uses magnetism, and is a completely non-invasive way of stimulating certain sections of the brain and allowing a person to think and feel a certain way. In short, there doesn’t need to be any surgery or electrodes implanted into the user’s brain to make it happen.

brain-to-brain-interfacingThis method also neatly sidestep the fact that we really don’t know how the human brain encodes information. And so, for now, instead of importing a “native” message, we have to use our own encoding scheme (binary) and a quirk of the visual cortex. And even if it does seem a little bit like hard work, there’s no denying that this is a conscious, non-invasive brain-to-brain connection.

With some refinement, it’s not hard to imagine a small, lightweight EEG that allows the sender to constantly stream thoughts back to the receiver. In the future, rather than vocalizing speech, or vainly attempting to vocalize one’s own emotions, people could very well communicate their thoughts and feelings via a neural link that is accommodated by simple headbands with embedded sensors.

Brain-ScanAnd imagine a world where instant messaging and video conferencing have the added feature of direct thought sharing. Or an The Internet of Thoughts, where people can transfer terabytes worth of brain activity the same way they share video, messages and documents. Remember, the internet began as a small-scale connection between a few universities, labs and research projects.

I can foresee a similar network being built between research institutions where professors and students could do the same thing. And this could easily be followed by a militarized version where thoughts are communicated instantly between command centers and bunkers to ensure maximum clarity and speed of communication. My how the world is shaping up to be a science fiction novel!


The Future of Medicine: “Hacking” Neurological Disorders

brain-scan_530Officially, it’s known as “neurohacking” – a method of biohacking that seeks to manipulate or interfere with the structure and/or function of neurons and the central nervous system to improve or repair the human brain. In recent years, scientists and researchers have been looking at how Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) could be used for just such a purpose. And the results are encouraging, indicating that the technology could be used to correct for neurological disorders.

The key in this research has to do with the subthalamic nucleus (STN) – a component of the basal ganglia control system that is interconnected to the motor areas of the brain. Researchers initially hit upon the STN as a site for stimulation when studying monkeys with artificially induced movement disorders. When adding electrical stimulation to this center, the result was a complete elimination of debilitating tremors and involuntary movements.

DIY biohacker Anthony Johnson – aka. “Cyber AJ” – also recently released a dramatic video where he showed the effects of DBS on himself. As a Parkison’s sufferer, Johnson was able to demonstrate how the applications of a mild electrical stimulus from his Medtronic DBS to the STN region of his brain completely eliminated the tremors he has had to deal with ever since he was diagnosed.

But in spite of these positive returns, tests on humans have been slow-going and somewhat inconclusive. Basically, scientists have been unable to conclude why stimulating the STN would eliminate tremors, as the function of this region of the brain is still somewhat of a mystery. What’s more, they also determined that putting electrodes in any number of surrounding brain nuclei, or passing fiber tracts, seems to have similar beneficial effects.

In truth, when dealing with people who suffer from neurological disorders, any form of stimulation is likely to have a positive effect. Whether it is Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Tourettes, Autism, Aspergers, or neurological damage, electrical stimulation is likely to produce moments of lucidity, greater recall, and more focused attention. Good news for some, but until such time as we know how and in what ways the treatment needs to happen, lasting treatment will be difficult.

brain-activityLuckily, research conducted by the Movement Disorders Group at Oxford University, led by Peter Brown, has provided some degree of progress in this field. Since DBS was first discovered, they have been busily recording activity through what is essentially a brain-computer interface (BCI) in the hopes of amassing meaningful data from the brain as it undergoes stimulation moment-by-moment.

For starters, it is known that the symptoms of Parkinson’s and other such disorders fluctuate continuously and any form of smart control needs to be fast to be effective. Hence, DBS modules need to be responsive, and not simply left on all the time. Hence, in addition to their being electrodes that can provide helpful stimulus, there also need to be sensors that can detect when the brain is behaving erratically.

neuronsHere too, it was the Oxford group that came up with a solution. Rather than simply implanting more junk into the brain – expensive and potentially dangerous – Brown and his colleagues realized that the stimulation electrodes themselves can be used to take readings from the local areas of the brain and send signals to the DBS device to respond.

By combining BCI with DBS – lot of acronyms, I know! – the Oxford group and those like them have come away with many ideas for improvements, and are working towards an age where a one-size-fits-all DBS system will be replaced with a new series of personalized implants.

tcdsIn the meantime, a number of recreational possibilities also exist that do not involve electrodes in the brain. The tDCS headband is one example, a headset that provides transcranial direct current stimulation to the brain without the need for neurosurgery or any kind of brain implant. In addition to restoring neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to be flexible and enable learning and growth – it has also been demonstrated to promote deeper sleep and greater awareness in users.

But it is in the field of personalized medical implants, the kinds that can correct for neurological disorders, that the real potential really exists. In the long-run, such neurological prosthesis could not only going to lead to the elimination of everything from mental illness to learning disabilities, they would also be the first step towards true and lasting brain enhancement.

transhuman3It is a staple of both science fiction and futurism that merging the human brain with artificial components and processors is central to the dream of transhumanism. By making our brains smarter, faster, and correcting for any troubling hiccups that might otherwise slow us down, we would effectively be playing with an entirely new deck. And what we would be capable of inventing and producing would be beyond anything we currently have at our disposal.

Sources:, (2)

The Science of Sleep: Seeing Dreams and Augmenting Your Z’s

sleepingBeautySleep is a preoccupation the vast majority of human beings simply cannot shake. Unlike those lucky few who seem to be able to get by on a few hours a night, most people require a good eight hours of rest to be able to work, play, and function properly. Given that so much of our lives are spent in sleep – a full third, if we’re lucky – it’s little wonder then why the science of sleeping continues to fascinate us and garner so much attention.

Just this past April, Yukiyasu Kamitani and his colleagues at the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, announced that they were close to realizing their goal of being able to visualize people’s dreams. By this, of course, they meant the ability to take what a person was seeing while in deep REM sleep and project it onto a screen.

brain-activityThe process relies on a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) device, which examines the flow of blood in the brain to monitor activity. Using this data, the team then managed to create an algorithm that they claim can accurately display in real time what images are appearing in the subject’s dream. This is the first time, it is believed, that objective data has been collected from dreams.

But of course, the concept is predicated on the idea that when you experience a thought, your brain behaves in a specific, repeatable function. Assuming that this much is true, then the results could very well be quantifiable and rendered. The technology has already been demonstrated to work with a fair degree of effectiveness, as shown as the 2011 experiment at the University of California, where subjects watched movie trailers and had the images they were watching reconstructed.

Science-can-tell-what-you-are-dreamingAnd while some researchers are working on seeing dreams, others are working to reduce the time we spend doing it. Yes, given the hectic pace people who live in the modern, industrialized world are now forced to live by, there are actually research teams out there looking to find ways – pharmaceutical and neurological – to reduce our dependency on sleep.

The purpose is simple, to increase the amount of time we have in which live, produce and enjoy ourselves not by living longer, but by increasing the efficiency of sleep so we can spend more of our lives awake. In an extended essay that is available at Aeon magazine, Jessa Gamble – a writer specializing in the science of sleep – explains how new technologies could make this a reality.

tcdsSuch technologies include things like the Somneo Sleep Trainer, a special mask that is being developed by Advanced Brain Monitoring and DARPA to help US servicemen and women combat fatigue, sleep deprivation, and experience more restful sleeps when they take them. By using a device that combines an EEG monitor and a series of blue-LED lights to supress melatonin, the mask is able to restrict the wearer’s sleep to only the most restorative phases of sleep.

And then there is the technology of transcranial direct-current stimulation, which involves such devices as the tDCS headband. Here, an electrical current is sent through the sleep-important parts of the brain, specifically the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. The mild stimulation augments awareness and allows subjects, according to Gamble, to “learn visual search skills at double the speed.” They also sleep better later on, with “briefer waking periods and longer deep-sleep sessions.”

Using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation whichA third potential technology that could be used is known as “transcranial magnetic stimulation” (TMS), a process which induces “slow-wave oscillations” in the brain, pushing the subject into a state of deep sleep in less time. Whereas the Somneo Sleep mask puts people into a lighter phase of sleep quicker, TMS will allow them to achieve a deeper state of sleep almost instantaneously. Add to that a better sleep cycle and better periods of wakefulness, and you’ve got what can only be described as “augmented sleep”.

But of course, this technology is being spearheaded for the sake of armed services, but has immense civilian applications as well. According to the CDC, roughly 30% of Americans live with less than adequate amounts of sleep, which drastically increases the risks of chronic disease. So realistically, this technology has the power to remediate the problem of those not getting enough sleep before it begins “enhancing” the sleep of others.

And I for one wonder where I might get myself a tCDS headband. While I have no intention of cutting down on the total number of hours I spend in the sack, I do like the idea of making the sleep I get more sound and my waking hours more wakeful. Then people can expect me to be a lot more productive. I know there have been some complaints about my output on this site lately 😉