Brain to Brain Interface

Brain to Brain Interface Photo Credit: Clipart.com

Scientists have successfully transmitted information from one brain to another.


Linking up brains. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Researchers at the University of Southampton in England have transmitted a simple code from the mind of one person to the brain of another. But it's a far cry from telepathy. Biomedical engineer Christopher James says it involves two people with brainwave detectors hooked up to computers. Person A imagines a series of movements, involving either his left or right arm, for example.

And that will give us two different types of brain recordings, which we can then use to create a binary pattern: a zero or a one.

That's converted into a pattern of flashing lights on Person B's computer. Although Person B can't consciously figure out the pattern, her brain responds to it—in a way that matches up to the binary code. This line of research could eventually help completely paralyzed people convey their thoughts to others. I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

The idea of communicating thoughts from one person to another has been a central element of all kinds of science fiction, from stage magicians to TV's "Star Trek" and "Heroes." This experiment doesn't achieve what those stories usually depict. Nobody's reading anyone's mind here.

However, on the most basic level, the researchers have transmitted information from one person's brain to another, without using traditional forms of communication. The research is part of a larger effort to help people with "locked-in syndrome"—an extreme form of paralysis in which a person can think, but not move or speak. There are other applications too, but that would be the most medically useful.

Connecting a brain directly to a computer is called a "brain-computer interface," or BCI. In past experiments, scientists have created BCI systems that allow people to move a cursor on a computer screen with their thoughts. This takes a lot of training and practice. The participant learns to think very specifically about one of two different things—for example, moving their left arm versus their right arm. A computer learns to tell the difference between the patterns of brainwaves produced by those two different thoughts, and responds by moving the cursor in a particular direction. The thoughts themselves don't even need to have anything to do with direction: for example, training a computer to move a cursor left when you think about pizza and right when you think about your mother could, in theory, work just as well. Some scientists have also created BCI's that allow users to spell words, albeit very slowly.

This experiment takes things a step further. As with the other thought-controlled devices, the user practices two distinct ways of thinking, and the computer learns to code those different thoughts as either a 0 or a 1. (That's binary code, the basis of modern computing.) Then, it sends that binary code to the other person's computer, which has a light attached to it. The light begins to flash in a pattern that corresponds to the code: one flash pattern for each 0, another for each 1. Although the difference between the types of flashing is too subtle for the second user to recognize, his or her brain responds to it differently. The researchers were then able to use another brainwave detector to decode what the second person saw, and sure enough, it matched the binary code that the first person thought about.

If all this sounds too complicated to have any use, you're right. But the point of this experiment was just to prove the concept that one person's thoughts could be translated into a code that another person's brain could detect, without any conscious effort on the second person's part. Far in the future, scientists might even be able to use computers to enable one person to actually experience the thoughts of another. If that ever happens, nobody with a functioning brain would be truly "locked in."

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is a brain-computer interface?
  2. How does this system differ from previous BCI systems?
  3. Why was it important that the second person's brain responded to the binary light pattern, even though the response was unconscious?
  4. What other applications could BCI be used for?

You may want to check out the October 23, 2009 Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: lies parents tell their children; is comfort food a fallacy?; imitating the dog's nose; and computer-facilitated brain-to-brain communication.

Going Further

For Educators

Read about a paralyzed man using a BCI in the National Geographic News article Man Moves Objects With His Mind Using New Sensor.

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