Researchers from the University of Washington found a way to link two human brains so that brain-to-brain communication was possible in what has been called the most complex brain-to-brain experiment ever achieved in humans, and the first experiment to show that two human brains can be linked together to allow for thought communication. In the experiment, participants played a game the researchers called “20 Questions with the Mind.” A report about this brain-to-brain experiment has been published in PLOS ONE.
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The experimental game allows participants to use brain-to-brain signals interactively through a direct brain-to-brain interface (BBI) connection. The participants played a question-and-answer game by transmitting signals from one person’s brain to another person’s brain over the Internet, according to Medical News Today.
Lead author Dr. Andrea Stocco is an assistant professor of psychology at University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. Co-author Prof. Rajesh Rao specializes in brain computer interfaces (BCI). Their team has been working on the brain-to-brain research since 2011. They discovered a way to allow participants to communicate conscious thoughts to each other through visual signals.
The scene seems like something out of a science fiction movie.
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Participants sit in separate, darkened rooms that are about a mile apart and they look at a computer screen. The respondent participant wears a cap that is connected to an EEG machine. The “inquirer” sits with a magnetic coil placed behind his or her head. This setup is the link that allowed their brains to communicate with each other.
First, the participant wearing the cap that is hooked up to the EEG machine is shown a visual image on a computer screen. Meanwhile, the participant sitting in front of the magnetic coil is shown a list of possible objects and a list of associated questions and is told to click a mouse. That sends a question to the other person sitting almost a mile away with the cap on his or her head. The person receiving the question answers “yes” or “no” by focusing his or her mind on one of two different flashing LED lights that are attached to the monitor and flash at different frequencies. By focusing their mind on one of these lights, they send a signal to the inquirer over the internet. The signal is received by the person wearing the magnetic coil behind his or her head.
What happens is that when the person answers “yes,” a response is generated that is strong enough to stimulate the visual cortex causing the inquirer to actually see a flash of light. This flash of light is known as a phosphene, and it looks like a blob, waves, or a thin line. When they see this phosphene with their brain’s visual cortex, the inquirer knows that the answer is “yes.” Right now, the answers have to remain simple yes or no answers, but the whole experiment proved that brains can be linked to allow them to communicate with thought and opens up a whole new area of study.
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This is also the very first time that scientists have been able to use the stimulation of the human visual cortex in order to “convey visual stimuli that are privately experienced and consciously perceived by the inquirer,” Medical News Today explained. In 2013, the University of Washington team also managed to use non-invasive technology to allow one person to control the hand movement of another person using brain signals.
While conspiracy theorists or science fiction connoisseurs could easily take this experiment and see the beginning of technology that could easily be abused, co-author Chantel Prat says their plan for the technology will likely be therapeutic in nature. Prat said that signals could be directly transferred from healthy brains to the brains of people suffering from developmental cognitive impairments or impairments from events such as stroke through “brain tutoring.” It may even be possible, to transfer knowledge from teacher to pupil, Prat said. The therapeutic possibilities of the brain-to-brain communication are endless.
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“Imagine having someone with ADHD and a neurotypical student. When the non-ADHD student is paying attention, the ADHD student’s brain gets put into a state of greater attention automatically,” Prat added of the potential for the new brain communication technology.