Scientists Create First-Ever Brain-to-Brain Network for Thought Exchange

Monday, October 1, 2018 - 14:47

Researchers have built a system called BrainNet which allows an actual exchange of thoughts between the brains.

The precursor to BrainNet was a gear that University of Washington researchers used in 2015 to connect two people through a brain-to-brain interface. In its modern avatar, BrainNet allows three people to join a conversation using brain-to-brain network, Engadget reported.

Andrea Stocco and his colleagues at the University of Washington announced they have achieved a world-first brain-to-brain network which they call BrainNet, allows a small group to play a collaborative Tetris-like game.

“Our results raise the possibility of future brain-to-brain interfaces that enable cooperative problem-solving by humans using a ‘social network’ of connected brains,” they say.

Stocco and his colleagues have created a network that allows three individuals to send and receive information directly to their brains. They say the network is easily scalable and limited only by the availability of EEG and TMS devices.

The proof-of-principle network connects three people: two senders and one person able to receive and transmit, all in separate rooms and unable to communicate conventionally. The group together has to solve a Tetris-like game in which a falling block has to be rotated so that it fits into a space at the bottom of the screen.

The two senders, wearing EEGs, can both see the full screen. The game is designed so the shape of the descending block fits in the bottom row either if it is rotated by 180 degrees or if it is not rotated. The senders have to decide which and broadcast the information to the third member of the group.

To do this, they vary the signal their brains produce. If the EEG picks up a 15 Hz signal from their brains, it moves a cursor toward the right-hand side of the screen. When the cursor reaches the right-hand side, the device sends a signal to the receiver to rotate the block.

The senders can control their brain signals by staring at LEDs on either side of the screen—one flashing at 15 Hz and the other at 17 Hz.

The receiver, attached to an EEG and a TMS, has a different task. The receiver can see only the top half of the Tetris screen, and so can see the block but not how it should be rotated. However, the receiver receives signals via the TMS from each sender, saying either “rotate” or “do not rotate.”

The signals consist of a single phosphene to indicate the block must be rotated or no flash of light to indicate that it should not be rotated. So the data rate is low—just one bit per interaction.

Having received data from both senders, the receiver performs the action. But crucially, the game allows for another round of interaction.

The senders can see the block falling and so can determine whether the receiver has made the right call and transmit the next course of action—either rotate or not—in another round of communication.

This allows the researchers to have some fun. In some of the trials they deliberately change the information from one sender to see if the receiver can determine whether to ignore it. That introduces an element of error often reflected in real social situations.

But the question they investigate is whether humans can work out what to do when the data rates are so low. It turns out humans, being social animals, can distinguish between the correct and false information using the brain-to-brain protocol alone.

That’s interesting work that paves the way for more complex networks. The team says the information travels across a bespoke network set up between three rooms in their labs. However, there is no reason why the network cannot be extended to the Internet, allowing participants around the world to collaborate.

“A cloud-based brain-to-brain interface server could direct information transmission between any set of devices on the brain-to-brain interface network and make it globally operable through the Internet, thereby allowing cloud-based interactions between brains on a global scale,” Stocco and his colleagues say. “The pursuit of such brain-to-brain interfaces has the potential to not only open new frontiers in human communication and collaboration but also provide us with a deeper understanding of the human brain.”

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