Have you ever had the experience of looking at your friend across the room and knowing that she is thinking the same exact thing as you? You’re pretty sure you have just shared a telepathic moment. Except that telepathy doesn’t exist. Or does it?
(Insert dramatic ‘bum bum buuuuum’ here)
Miguel Nicolelis and his research team at Duke University have recently developed a brain-to-brain interface that can transmit information between the brains of two rats. The study, published in Nature Scientific Reports, uses brain implants to send tactile sensory and motor information from the cortex of one animal to the other. Through this brain-to-brain connection, if one animal was cued to push a lever, the other animal usually pushed a lever too, but without any cue. In essence, the technology allows the brain to process and respond to information from a different body.
How does this brain-to-brain interface work? The system connects brains of individual rats using microelectrode arrays, which are panels of hair-fine electrodes that can record and transmit electrical activity within neural networks. In the study, Nicolelis and his team use microelectrode arrays to record neural activity from sensory and motor regions of one animal’s brain (the encoder). They then use a computer to transform that brain activity into a series of electrical pulses that can be transmitted to the cortex of a second animal (the decoder). Amazingly, this wired brain-to-brain interface allows the decoder animal to ‘know’ the movements and tactile experiences of the encoder animal, even if the animals are 4,000 miles apart.
While the kinds of tasks the two rodent brains could perform together were very simple and only required binary decisions, the proof-of-concept is pretty fantastic. Perhaps the most interesting result was the emergence of cooperation between the encoder and decoder animals. In the study, encoder animals were rewarded if the decoder animal interpreted the task correctly. Surprisingly, this real-time feedback system allowed the encoder animal to make faster, more accurate decisions in subsequent tasks. This enhanced performance of the encoder rat translated into more robust brain activity that, in turn, provided a stronger, cleaner signal for the other rat to decode. This unexpected emergent feature suggests that brain-to-brain interfaces may be a much more powerful and dynamic tool than standard brain-computer interfaces.
Scientifically and futuristically speaking, this technology is cool … I mean, REALLY cool. But, as a neuroscientist, I’m also left thinking, ‘So now what?’. This newly developed brain-to-brain interface doesn’t obviously advance any current biomedical field. The design isn’t as elegant as other neuroprothestic devices that Nicolelis and his team have built in the past. And many other scientists are left wondering about potential applications for this type of neural highway for transporting information between brains.
But Nicolelis has big plans for brain-to-brain interfaces. Much more work needs to be done to improve the current system including improving the learning-curve associated with decoding another brain’s activity, increasing the complexity and bandwidth of brain activity that can be transferred, and developing less invasive implants. But in a few decades, Nicolelis envisions applications for biological computers. In an interview with BBC News, Nicolelis indicated that his lab is already scaling their brain-to-brain interfaces to include multiple animals and predicted the brilliant power of “millions of brains tackling the same problem and sharing a solution.”
Imagine a future where you can be wired into a network of other minds … are you thinking what I’m thinking?