Did you ever want to make someone else do something and were unable to get him to cooperate? Did you ever have a fleeting thought that it would be great if you could just influence his mind with your mind, and get him to respond as you wanted?
Sounds like the plot of a science fiction movie, or perhaps a novel by Stephen King (though in my case, Star Trek comes to mind). Well, not any more.
Scientists at Duke University have developed a Brain-to-Brain Interface (BBI). This apparatus allows the receiver to pick up electrical signals generated by the subject’s brain (via electroencephalography [EEG]) and transmit them to a Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) that sends them to the recipient’s brain.
The apparatus used on the recipient’s brain is a little more complex. The electrical impulses received activate an ultrasound transmitter that sends a brief burst of low-energy ultrasound waves to a highly specific area of the rat’s cortex. This low-energy ultrasound doesn’t damage the rat’s brain, just causes an impulse to form there, and then get transmitted to the appropriate area(s).
The Duke team used two rats. One was the “transmitter” the other the “receiver.” The transmitter rat learned to press a specific bar to receive a food reward. His neurons’ electrical impulses were recorded and sent to an appropriately prepared (but untrained) rat via the Internet. The untrained rat picked the appropriate bar and got the food reward about 70% to the time. And, remember, the receiver rat had no training as to which bar to press to receive the reward. So animal-to-animal transmission was shown to be possible.
In rapid succession, researchers at Harvard did something similar. But this time they used a human to direct a rat. The human’s EEG signal was sent to the rat. The transmission caused the rat to move its tail in response to the information sent from the human test subject. The human got visually “cued” and when he received the appropriate cue, his cortical neurons responded appropriately. Those signals were transmitted to the rat and the rat’s tail twitched.
So, there was animal-to-animal, then human-to-animal transmission (“control,” perhaps).
Next step human-to-human transmission.
The University of Washington did just that. In this case, the test subjects were also the researchers, Drs. Rao and Stocco. In this instance, ultrasound wasn’t used to stimulate the recipient’s brain, a magnetic field was used instead.
Rao, wearing a swim cap studded with EEG electrodes sat in a room where he was isolated from Stocco who was all the way across campus. Stocco wore a swim cap that had a transcranial magnetic generator positioned over his motor cortex. Rao was playing a video game. He visualized what he’d need to do to fire during the game (but didn’t move his finger to press the fire button). This signal was sent to Stocco and his index finger pressed the spacebar on the computer keyboard in front of him. Rao and Stocco were not able to communicate with each other, other than via the EEG signal. Stocco had no idea when the “fire” signal would come from Rao. Later, Stocco said that when his finger moved independently, it jumped as if it had a nervous tic. He later jokingly called it a “Vulcan mind-meld.”
The researchers emphasized that this experiment had nothing to do with mind reading. Neither Rao or Stocco got a sense of each other’s thoughts. And the experiment couldn’t have succeeded if Stocco hadn’t been willing to allow his finger to move. That is, he could have resisted the incoming impulses and prevented his finger from moving.
Interestingly, most of this research has occurred within the last year. It’s amazing to think of what the possibilities could be in the future.
What’s next? A single tail twitch or finger flick, though it might not sound like much, considering the circumstances, is incredibly impressive. But there are other options that can be explored.
The researchers mention that perhaps, in the future, devices like this could be used when a pilot, flying an aircraft, gets ill. A pilot on the ground could, using instrumentation like this, communicate with an unskilled passenger to fly the plane to safety. While that may be years in the future, and somewhat far-fetched, there are other uses.
Locked-In Syndrome is a medical condition that can sometimes occur post brain injury. In locked-in-syndrome, the patient is virtually unable to move any voluntary muscles, except for eye muscles . Communication may be difficult, tedious and almost impossible. He may only be able to blink or move his eyes to signal “yes” or “no”. With modifications of the above technique, he could be able to speak through a surrogate wearing the transcranial magnet.
Or there could be a role for something like this to help those with severe autism to communicate.
The possibilities are fascinating. And, with developments coming so quickly, this field may attract many new researchers to help move the work forward.