Oct 06, 2014
First direct brain-to-brain communication between human subjects
An international team of neuroscientists and robotics engineers have demonstrated the first direct remote brain-to-brain communication between two humans located 5,000 miles away from each other and communicating via the Internet, as reported in a paper recently published in PLOS ONE (open access).
Emitter and receiver subjects with non-invasive devices supporting, respectively, a brain-computer interface (BCI), based on EEG changes, driven by motor imagery (left) and a computer-brain interface (CBI) based on the reception of phosphenes elicited by neuro-navigated TMS (right) (credit: Carles Grau et al./PLoS ONE)
In India, researchers encoded two words (“hola” and “ciao”) as binary strings and presented them as a series of cues on a computer monitor. They recorded the subject’s EEG signals as the subject was instructed to think about moving his feet (binary 0) or hands (binary 1). They then sent the recorded series of binary values in an email message to researchers in France, 5,000 miles away.
There, the binary strings were converted into a series of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) pulses applied to a hotspot location in the right visual occipital cortex that either produced a phosphene (perceived flash of light) or not.
“We wanted to find out if one could communicate directly between two people by reading out the brain activity from one person and injecting brain activity into the second person, and do so across great physical distances by leveraging existing communication pathways,” explains 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.
A team of researchers from Starlab Barcelona, Spain and Axilum Robotics, Strasbourg, France conducted the experiment. A second similar experiment was conducted between individuals in Spain and France.
“We believe these experiments represent an important first step in exploring the feasibility of complementing or bypassing traditional language-based or other motor/PNS mediated means in interpersonal communication,” the researchers say in the paper.
“Although certainly limited in nature (e.g., the bit rates achieved in our experiments were modest even by current BCI (brain-computer interface) standards, mostly due to the dynamics of the precise CBI (computer-brain interface) implementation, these initial results suggest new research directions, including the non-invasive direct transmission of emotions and feelings or the possibility of sense synthesis in humans — that is, the direct interface of arbitrary sensors with the human brain using brain stimulation, as previously demonstrated in animals with invasive methods.
Brain-to-brain (B2B) communication system overview. On the left, the BCI subsystem is shown schematically, including electrodes over the motor cortex and the EEG amplifier/transmitter wireless box in the cap. Motor imagery of the feet codes the bit value 0, of the hands codes bit value 1. On the right, the CBI system is illustrated, highlighting the role of coil orientation for encoding the two bit values. Communication between the BCI and CBI components is mediated by the Internet. (Credit: Carles Grau et al./PLoS ONE)
“The proposed technology could be extended to support a bi-directional dialogue between two or more mind/brains (namely, by the integration of EEG and TMS systems in each subject). In addition, we speculate that future research could explore the use of closed mind-loops in which information associated to voluntary activity from a brain area or network is captured and, after adequate external processing, used to control other brain elements in the same subject. This approach could lead to conscious synthetically mediated modulation of phenomena best detected subjectively by the subject, including emotions, pain and psychotic, depressive or obsessive-compulsive thoughts.
“Finally, we anticipate that computers in the not-so-distant future will interact directly with the human brain in a fluent manner, supporting both computer- and brain-to-brain communication routinely. The widespread use of human brain-to-brain technologically mediated communication will create novel possibilities for human interrelation with broad social implications that will require new ethical and legislative responses.”
This work was partly supported by the EU FP7 FET Open HIVE project, the Starlab Kolmogorov project, and the Neurology Department of the Hospital de Bellvitge.