Scientists have created a Brain-to-Brain interface that allows two different animals to pass neural information from one brain to the next without ever seeing each other. The study, published on February 28th in Scientific Reports, is the first of its kind. The internet has been going crazy about it so I thought I’d offer my two cents and try to explain in layman’s terms exactly what happened.
Who Conducted the Experiment?
The lab of Miguel Nicolelis from Duke University performed the experiment with some collaborators in Natal, Brazil. This lab was one of the first teams to study the restoration of movement for paraplegics through the use of Brain-to-Machine interfaces.
How Does the Experiment Work?
First of all, electrodes must be implanted in 2 different rats’ brains. It looks like this:
The electrodes record electrical activity from neurons in the brain in the form of spikes. These spikes represent information (thoughts) and their number and timing are recorded and then transmitted through those wires into a nearby computer. The computer then converts the spikes into a representation that can be stimulated into the second rat’s brain. The hope is that the pattern that is stimulated into the second brain will make the rat respond in the same way as the first rat. In more detail: The first rat is signaled by an LED light to either go Left or Right (you can see in the yellow circle above). The brain information from rat #1 is recorded and transferred to rat #2, and then he has to go in the same direction as the first rat, but without seeing an LED light to let him know which way to go. He can only know which way to go if he uses the information that is being pumped into his brain through the wires.
So really, it is a brain-to-computer-to-brain interface. Here’s a schematic of what I just described:
An important point of this experimental design is that the original rat (labeled “Encoder”) received a reward if the second rat (“Decoder”) could perform the task successfully. This means that the 1st rat could change its thoughts a little bit if the second rat was not working correctly, and this effectively trained the network to operate more effectively.
One really cool thing about this study is that this all worked over very large distances. One rat was in a cage in Brazil while the other one was in America!
So How Do We Know it Worked?
The second rat was able to pick the right lever 70% of the time, a performance significantly better than chance, suggesting that the information was successfully transferred and understood. If the information wasn’t transferring properly, the performance would have been around 50%, meaning that the second rat had no idea which direction to go. You can see that graphically in the image below. The Encoder rat is the 1st rat and the Decoder rat is the second rat that is trying to use the first rat’s thoughts to complete the task.
Why Is This Brain-to-Brain Interface Important?
I have been pondering the implications of the study for the past week or so. Nicolelis pointed out that, in theory, such a system is not limited to a pair of brains, but instead could include a network of brains, which he named a “Brain-Net.” Researchers at Duke and at the ELS-IINN are now working on experiments to link multiple animals cooperatively to solve more complex behavioral tasks. “We cannot even predict what kinds of emergent properties would appear when animals begin interacting as part of a brain-net. In theory, you could imagine that a combination of brains could provide solutions that individual brains cannot achieve by themselves.” Such a connection might even mean that one animal would incorporate another’s sense of “self,” he said.
To me, this paper says that it’s possible to take information from one brain and pump it into another brain to assist the second brain to do something. I think to make this really useful, it will be necessary to record from many more neurons at a time to get a more accurate representation of the neural information. We also have to have a better understanding of how thoughts are encoded in those spikes so we really know what information we’re transferring.
Maybe one day we’ll see bees flying in formation or cows herding themselves… And when they find a way to translate this technology to humans, we could ultimately see some sort of telepathic communication in action.
Exciting times ahead!