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We Can Now Send Thoughts Directly between Brains

brain to brainThe dawn of human brain-to-brain communication has arrived

Oct 16, 2014 – By Rajesh P. N. Rao and Andrea Stocco

Note from TGI: This is an excerpt from an article that recently appeared in the Oct. edition of Scientific American Mind Magazine, a great publication for articles such as this one! (www.scientificAmerican.com)

Two humans have transmitted thoughts directly between their brains in a recent experiment.

Scientists used electroencephalography to decode the neural chatter in a sender’s brain and transcranial magnetic stimulation to induce neurons to fire in a recipient’s brain.

Direct brain-to-brain communication may one day offer a fundamentally different way for people to share and transfer knowledge.

“Mr. Watson, come here!” Alexander Graham Bell uttered these first words over a telephone 138 years ago. With that statement he ushered in the telecommunications revolution that would ultimately bring us mobile phones, the Internet, and near-instantaneous exchanges of speech, text and video across continents.

Yet speech can be limiting. Some abstract concepts and emotions can be difficult to convey with words. And certain disabilities rob people of their full communicative powers even as their minds remain otherwise intact.

Neural engineers have spent several decades developing ways to overcome such impairments. Technologies known as brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are now beginning to allow paralyzed individuals to control, say, a computer cursor or a prosthetic limb with their brain signals. BCIs rely on data-processing techniques to extract a person’s intention to move and then relay that information to the device he or she wishes to control.

In 2010 one of us (Rao) had a realization: perhaps we could use this same principle to beam thoughts from one human brain to another. Imagine if a teacher could convey a mathematical proof directly to your brain, nonverbally. Or perhaps a medical student could learn a complex surgical skill straight from a mentor’s mind. Such ideas have been a staple of science fiction, from the Vulcan mind meld of Star Trek to the control of an avatar by a paraplegic human in the movie Avatar. In conversations at the University of Washington, where we both work, we realized that we had all the equipment we needed to build a rudimentary version of this technology. Along with other scientists, we are now learning to bypass traditional modes of communication and swap thoughts directly between brains.

Mind Melds Made Real

The gist of our strategy was to use electrodes arranged on one person’s scalp to pick up brain waves, a technique known as electroencephalography. Hidden in that neural hubbub are signals that indicate what a person is thinking. We would focus on extracting one such pattern and then send it over the Internet to a second person. The signal would dictate how to electrically stimulate the recipient’s brain. Because neurons communicate electrically, we can strategically influence their messaging by applying electric current or a magnetic field, among other tricks. In short, we would use one person’s brain data to produce a specific pattern of neural activity in another individual.

By the time we finally tried out our design, two other teams of neuroscientists had also transmitted signals directly between brains, though not between two humans. The experiments so far, including ours, have been simple proofs of concept: one participant is designated the sender, and the other subject is the receiver. Ultimately we want to send and receive information in both directions, but we believe the challenges of that next step will be surmountable.

Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University and his team were the first to demonstrate brain-to-brain messaging. In early 2013 they published an experiment in which simple communiqués were transmitted between two rats on different continents. Later that year another experiment was published that involved humans as the senders. In it, six people wearing an EEG headset were each paired with an anesthetized rat. Seung-Schik Yoo of Harvard Medical School and his collaborators made use of an emerging technique that delivers highly focused ultrasonic energy through the skull to specific regions of the brain. When a participant decided to move the rat’s tail, that person’s corresponding brain activity triggered an ultrasonic pulse that entered the rodent’s brain. The 350-kilohertz burst of acoustic pressure was aimed at the rat’s motor cortex, which controls movement. About two seconds later the rodent’s tail lifted and then fell.

Firing Cannons with Neurons

Similar to Yoo’s effort, our experiment also used EEG to identify the control signal. The Rao laboratory has many years of experience extracting intentions from EEG signals, so it was a natural place to start. Once a computer decodes a neural message, the main question becomes how to deliver it. Somewhat serendipitously, one of us (Stocco) and our colleague Chantel Prat were investigating transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a technology approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of major depression. This method relies on pulses of a magnetic field to induce neurons in a specific area of the recipient’s brain to fire.

To deliver the pulses, you place an insulated metal coil next to a person’s head. When electricity discharges into the coil, a magnetic field forms around the neurons in the area near the coil. When the electricity stops running, the magnetic field disappears. The sudden rise and fall of the magnetic field induces a tiny electric current in the neurons that had been engulfed by that field, making them more likely to fire. When they do, a chain of connected neurons also activates.

Depending on how you position the coil and configure the magnetic field, you can also induce involuntary movements. We realized we could use this generally unwanted aspect of the technology to generate crude motions in a recipient. In our setup, Stocco would sit with a TMS coil over his left motor cortex, the brain area that controls the movement of his right hand. After some fiddling with parameters, we found the arrangement needed to stimulate the neurons that control Stocco’s wrist, making his hand twitch.

We decided to test our brain-to-brain interface by seeing if we could play a simple two-player video game. After students in our labs spent months writing computer code and integrating the technologies, on August 12 of last year we finally tried out our setup. Rao took on the role of the sender of information, and Stocco assumed the part of the receiver.

In the game, a pirate ship is shooting rockets at a city. The goal is to fire a cannon to intercept each rocket. Rao alone could see the screen displaying the game. But only Stocco could press the button to fire the cannon. At just the right moment, Rao had to form the intention to shoot, and a few seconds later Stocco would receive the intention and press the button.

Rao donned a tight-fitting cap studded with 32 electrodes, which measure fluctuations in electrical activity at different locations across the head. At any given time, distinct populations of neurons may be oscillating at many different frequencies. When he imagined moving a hand, the EEG electrodes registered a telltale signature that our software could detect. The giveaway was a drop in the low-frequency oscillations in Rao’s brain. We used that signature as our cue to send a command over the Internet to stimulate Stocco’s brain.

Stocco did not register the impulse consciously, but his right hand moved anyway. The stimulation caused his hand to lift, and when it fell it hit a keyboard and fired the cannon. Success! For the first time, a human brain had communicated an intention directly to another human brain, allowing the two brains to jointly complete a task. As we played the game, we got better and better, to the point where in our last run, we intercepted the pirate rockets with almost 100 percent accuracy. Rao learned how to imagine moving his hand in a consistent manner, giving the computer a chance to make sense of his EEG brain data. Stocco found that he did not know his wrist was moving until he felt or saw his hand in motion.