For the first time ever, neuroscientists have demonstrated the viability of direct — and completely non-invasive — brain-to-brain communication in humans. Remarkably, the experiment allowed subjects to exchange mentally-conjured words despite being 5,000 miles apart.
It's the neuroscientific equivalent of instant messaging. Two human subjects, one in India and one in France, successfully transmitted the words "hola" and "ciao" in a computer-assisted brain-to-brain transmission using internet-linked electroencephalogram (EEG) and robot-assisted image-guided transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) technologies.
It wasn't the most elegant set-up, but it represents an important step towards achieving technological enabled telepathy — the ability to exchange thoughts directly with another person.
Decoding Brain Signals
Prior to this experiment, most researchers have used EEG technologies to facilitate interactions between a human brain and a computer. In one experiment, for example, researchers were able to get a human to move a rat's tail with their thoughts.
In such cases, researchers use electrodes attached to a person's scalp to record electrical currents in the brain. Computers record these 'action-thoughts' — such as consciously thinking about moving an arm or leg — and then interpret those signals and translate them to a control output, such as a robot, mouse cursor, or wheelchair.
Adding Another Brain
But in this new experiment, an international team of researchers added a second human brain to the other end of the system. To make it happen, they recruited four participants, one of whom was assigned to the brain-computer interface (BCI) branch, the part of the chain where the messages were to originate. The other three participants were assigned to the computer-brain interface (CBI) branch to receive the messages being transmitted to them.
Using EEG, the researchers translated the greetings "hola" and "ciao" into binary, and then emailed the results from India to France. At this receiving location, a CBI transmitted the message to the receivers' brains through noninvasive brain stimulation. This was experienced as phosphenes — flashes of light in their peripheral vision. The light appeared in the numerical sequences that allowed the receivers to decode the data in the message.
It's important to note that this information was not conveyed to the subjects via tactile, visual, or auditory cues; special measures were taken to block sensory input. This ensured that the communication was exclusively mind-to-mind — though it was channeled through several different mediums.
As noted by the researchers in their ensuing paper, which now appears in PLOS:
Here we show how to link two human minds directly by integrating two neurotechnologies – BCI and CBI –, fulfilling three important conditions, namely a) being non-invasive, b) cortically based, and c) consciously driven. In this framework we provide the first demonstration of non-invasive direct communication between human minds.
A second experiment was conducted between individuals in Spain and France, achieving a total error rate of just 15% percent (11% on the decoding end and 5% on the initial coding site). Not perfect, but not bad, either.
"By using advanced precision neuro-technologies including wireless EEG and robotized TMS, we were able to directly and noninvasively transmit a thought from one person to another, without them having to speak or write," explained coauthor Alvaro Pascual-Leone, MD, PhD, Director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. "This in itself is a remarkable step in human communication, but being able to do so across a distance of thousands of miles is a critically important proof-of-principle for the development of brain-to-brain communications. We believe these experiments represent an important first step in exploring the feasibility of complementing or bypassing traditional language-based or motor-based communication."
An important first step, for sure. But the researchers will have to figure out how to send more substantive messages and in a way that's easier for the receivers to interpret. That won't be easy.
Read the entire study at PLOS: "Conscious Brain-to-Brain Communication in Humans Using Non-Invasive Technologies".
Top image: Carles Grau et al/Plos.
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