BrainNet: First brain-to-brain interface for people tests gameplay using just the mind

Two subjects could see the game, while remotely conveying commands to a third person, who did the playing!

Telepathy has, so far, been clubbed under the same umbrella as magic tricks, voodoo and levitation as far as its feasibility is concerned. A team of neuroscience and computer science researchers has now inched humanity one step closer to making telepathy a reality. They have created a method that allows three people to work in concert to solve a problem — using only their minds and a working internet connection.

In other words, the first non-invasive interface connecting two human brains has been tested in a new experiment. Three researchers played a game of Tetris as part of a team, with two of them able to see the blocks and line but without any control over the game itself. The third person (the Receiver) can only see what the block is, but not whether it needs to be rotated to complete the line.

Washington University researchers Rajesh Rao and Andrea Stocco were two of the three subjects tested using this brain-to-brain interface, having their brains controlled over the internet by foreign impulses. When Rajesh played the video game — considered firing at a target, for instance — the EEG picks up the signal and sends it across the internet to the Receiver's helmet. A setup called the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) stimulates the part of Andrea’s brain controlling hand movement. This causes Andrea’s index finger to tap down on the keyboard, fire the cannon and blow up the target.

Each of the two Senders can decide if the block needs to be rotated, after which their decision (picked up by electrodes attached to the brain) is conveyed from the Sender's brain to the Receiver's. The Receiver's brain then processes the information, which the body follows like a command — in this case, the decision whether to rotate or not rotate a block. The game, therefore, is controlled directly by the brains of three people connected by wires and the internet in the hopes of completing and clearing a line (you've got to love classic Tetris).


 BrainNet: First brain-to-brain interface for people tests gameplay using just the mind

Part of the BrainNet set up is transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) device, shown here. Image: University of Washington

Both these players had an electroencephalogram (EEG) monitor and wires connecting different parts of their brains remotely, according to a press release by the University of Washington.

"Once the Sender makes a decision about whether to rotate the block, they send 'Yes' or 'No' to the Receiver’s brain by concentrating on the corresponding light," said first author Linxing Preston Jiang, a student at the Allen School.

This success demonstrates two key firsts: a brain-to-brain network made up of more than two people, and the ability to receive and send information to others using only one's brain and not language or visual inputs. The interface provided a direct connection between communication pathways of one animal's brain to another animal's.

In the past, similar interfaces have been tested in rats, where they were seen to help rats collaborate with each other on a certain task. When one of the rats wasn't able to pick the right lever, the first rat noticed (but didn't get an additional reward for his contribution). The brain of this rat showed a round of task-related firing of neurons that made the second rat more likely to choose the right lever.

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