Telepathic communication and hive minds are a big part of science fiction. Last year this fiction almost became reality when one scientist controlled another’s hand with his mind.
Earlier this year a team of scientists led by Giulio Ruffini, CEO of the neuroscience company Starlab, and Harvard Professor Alvaro Pascual-Leone used the same technology to send messages directly between the brains of two people in different continents. Dr Ruffini describes his experiment as ‘a simple first step which demonstrated that it is possible to bypass the senses (well, all our peripheral nervous system, really).’
The scientists converted the words ‘hola’ and ‘ciao’ into bit code, then transmitted this code from a person in India to people in France via email, without the people saying or writing the code. This was possible because of technologies that link up a person’s brain to a computer without having to implant an electrode. When the brain communicates to a computer it is called a brain-to-computer interface, and when a computer communicates to a brain it is a computer-to-brain interface.
In this experiment, electroencephalography (EEG) provided the brain-to-computer interface. The person in India (the message sender) wore wireless electrodes in a cap on his head. These electrodes were placed over the motor cortex of the brain and picked up electrical signals from his brain when he moved either his hands or his feet. When he moved his hands, the signal was encoded into a 1. When he moved his feet, the signal was encoded into a 0. He did not know the message that was being transmitted. The bit code had been randomised so he couldn’t guess the message. His aim was to move a ball across the computer screen to hit a target. If the target was at the bottom of the screen, he moved his feet to get the ball to hit the target and a 1-bit was encoded. If the target was in the top half of the screen, he moved his hands to control the ball and a 0-bit was recorded. Each time the ball hit the target, the corresponding bit was emailed from the Indian computer to the French computer. In this way he sent the message ‘hola’ or ‘ciao’ over the internet as bit code: 00111.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) provided the computer-to-brain interface. The people in France (the receivers) had an electromagnetic coil placed over the part of their brain that processes vision, called the visual occipital cortex. Electromagnetic coils produce a magnetic field that passes through the skull and induces electrical currents in the brain. These electrical currents activate neurons. In this experiment, when neurons in the visual cortex were activated, the receivers could see a tiny spot of light called a phosphene. This would only happen if the coil was in the right orientation to produce a magnetic field over the visual cortex. If it was rotated 90 degrees, the receivers would no longer see the phosphene. The coil’s orientation was changed by a robot that was directly programmed by the bits in the emails sent from India. If a 1-bit was sent, the receiver saw a spot of light. If the 0-bit was sent he didn’t. The receivers verbally announced whether they saw a phosphene or not. The received bits were then decoded back into words.
The scientists took care to make sure that the message was not guessed at either end. The bit code at the sender end was randomised. The receivers wore eye masks and ear plugs so they could not get any external sensory information that helped them to guess the message.
They had over 90% success rate in sending and receiving messages. While this is a lengthy and cumbersome technique that people probably aren’t going to start using, it does show that it is possible to send brain-to-brain messages half way across that world. And Dr Ruffini says that, ‘Transmitting thoughts of more complex content is the next frontier!’ He plans to try using functional MRI to send the messages and technology like Starstim to help people receive the message. Starstim is a cap that can electrically stimulate many parts of the brain at once.
It will be fun to watch what they do next.