Telepathy is the stuff of science fiction. But what if the dystopian futurists were on to something? What if our brains could directly interact with each other, bypassing the need for language? The idea isn't quite so far fetched, according to a recent University of Washington study in which researchers successfully replicated a direct brain-to-brain communication between two people.
In an initial demonstration a year ago, one of the researchers was able to send brain signals over the Internet in order to control the hand motions of another researcher. Now, in a more comprehensive study, the researchers repeatedly were able to transmit signals from one person’s brain via the Internet, and used these signals to control the hand motions of another person within a fraction of a second.
The study tested three pairs of participants (each with one sender and one receiver) who were seated in separate buildings on the Washington campus, roughly half a mile apart. They were unable to interact with one another, except for the link between their brains.
Watch the video below for a demonstration.
Here's what happens: One participant, the 'sender,' is hooked to an electroencephalography machine that reads his brain activity and sends electrical pulses via the Internet to the 'receiver,' who has a transcranial magnetic stimulation coil placed near the part of his brain that controls hand movements. With this technology, the sender can issue a command to move the hand of the receiver by simply thinking about the hand movement.
The sender, who is playing a computer game in which he has to defend a city by firing cannons, thinks about firing the cannon at various intervals throughout the game. The "Fire!" brain signal is sent over the Internet directly to the brain of the receiver, whose hand hits a touchpad that allows him to fire the cannon.
“The new study brings our brain-to-brain interfacing paradigm from an initial demonstration to something that is closer to a deliverable technology,” study co-author Andrea Stocco, a researcher at UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, said in a university statement. “Now we have replicated our methods and know that they can work reliably with walk-in participants.”
The accuracy among the pairs ranged from 25 to 83 percent, with errors attributed primarily to the sender's failure to "accurately execute" the fire-command thought rather than the hardware.
The UW team has earned a $1 million grant to conduct further research on decoding and transmitting more complex brain processes, expanding the types of information that can be sent from one brain to another.
The researchers believe that there could one day be potential therapeutic applications for people with brain injuries or disorders.
"We believe that it would be worth exploring the idea that you can help the [brain's] recovery process by literally transmitting the waves of a healthy brain to the brain that has been damaged," Stocco said in a UW video.
Although the applications for brain health are far in the future, the research could be a big step towards treating people with brain damage, according to researcher Chantel Prat of the UW Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.
"This paradigm offers a wide opportunity for developing protocols for interacting with or putting information into a human brain," Prat added in an email to the Huffington Post. "This technology could eventually be used to 'patch' what is missing or lost in a brain-damaged individual."
The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.