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Scientists have made a major breakthrough in brain-networking technology, linking animals together to allow them to solve problems collaboratively.
It may sound like science fiction, but this is real research that’s turning up real results. One experiment linked together the brains of three monkeys, allowing them to jointly control an avatar arm. A second experiment connected the brains of four rats, enabling them to solve a weather forecasting problem together that they struggled to solve individually.
Neuroethics researcher Anders Sandberg told The Guardian that this work is the most convincing demonstration yet that brains can be wired together for direct communication. “People have claimed digital telepathy in various cool demos, but it’s mostly been total hype,” he said. “I’m quite impressed by this. It has a high ‘gosh’ factor.”
How did this happen, and what are the implications? Let’s take a closer look.
Collaborative Monkey Brains
In the first study, scientists fitted three rhesus macaque monkeys with arrays to transmit their brain activity — that is, electrical impulses from hundreds of neurons in the motor region of the brain — to a computer.
An avatar arm was shown on a digital display in front of them, and the monkeys each independently learned to control its 3D movements, just by imagining moving it. But each monkey was only able to control two out of three dimensions, and their activity made only a 50-percent contribution to each. The goal was for the monkeys to collaboratively use the arm to reach for a virtual ball on the screen.
The monkeys’ brains were not wired together directly, but they intuitively began to synchronize their neural activity to move the arm. Even when one of the monkeys was distracted, the system continued to work.
The video above shows the monkeys controlling the 3D arm. Monkey M contributes to the x and y axes (blue dot), and Monkey K contributes to the y and z axes (green dot). The combination determines the final position of the arm (black dot).
The second study went a bit further. This time, scientists directly linked the brains of rats with two-way electrical connections that allowed scientists to read electrical activity and deliver stimulus to neurons.
In one part of the study, the researchers delivered an electrical impulse to the brain of one rat, and the other rats mimicked the first rat’s brain activity and response — meaning they experienced, second-hand, exactly what the first rat felt.
Another demonstration tested the rats’ weather forecasting abilities. Specifically, pulses of electrical stimulation were delivered to the brains of individual rats to represent temperature and barometric pressure information. The rats then produced a collective output that predicted either an increased or decreased chance of rain. Rats performed significantly better on this task when linked together in a “brain net” than they did individually.
This video shows a similar experiment, conducted by the same scientist, where the brains of two rats are wirelessly linked to collaborate on a task, forming what has been referred to as a “biological computer.”
Miguel Nicolelis, the Duke University scientist responsible for these experiments, has previously worked on technology to allow amputees to directly control prosthetic limbs. These findings, he said, could also be used for assistive purposes — namely, brain rehabilitation.
Following a stroke, for example, a patient’s motor skills and language abilities could potentially be restored sooner if their brain activity was synchronized with the brain of a healthy person. This could be done non-invasively, using electrodes on the scalp.
“This work opens up a bunch of possibilities that people have been dreaming about but have never been able to implement,” Andrea Stocco, a psychologist at the University of Washington, told Wired. “I can imagine surgeons coordinating surgery together or mathematicians visualizing the solution to a problem together. Or musicians and artists with a new way of working creatively.”
Telepathy in the traditional sense is still a long way off, though. Nicolelis’s computers monitored a total of about 3,000 neurons (spread out among all the rats), but the human brain contains about 100 billion neurons. The technology just isn’t there (yet) to monitor and record the vast number of processes going on in the human brain.
Maybe someday, right?
What are your thoughts on this research? Can you think of any other potential uses for a network of brains? Let us know in the comments below!
Image Credit: Nicolelis Laboratory, Allan Ajifo