Watch scientists send brain signals between people over the internet

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A new study has demonstrated that it is possible for people to transmit brain signals between one another over the internet – watch how it works here.

You may not believe in psychics’ self-proclaimed ability to read minds, but new research from the University of Washington suggests that telepathy may not be as farfetched as it once seemed. According to a report from Eurekalert, scientists were able to create a direct connection between two brains that allowed people to play a question and answer game without using words.

The researchers were able to allow participants to play the question and answer game by transmitting signals between the two people over the internet. The experiment, published in the journal PLOS ONE, is the first to show that two brains can in fact be linked to allow one person to perceive what the other is thinking.

According to the study’s lead author, Andrea Stocco, “This is the most complex brain-to-brain experiment, I think, that’s been done to date in humans.” Stocco is an assistant professor of psychology and a researcher at the University of Washington’s Institute of Learning and Brain Sciences. The experiment uses peoples’ consciousness through visual signals, and relies on the collaboration between people.

The brain interface is actually relatively simple. It works with the first participant, the respondent, donning a cap collected to an EEG machine that logs the electrical activity in the brain. The respondent is presented with an object, like a dog on a computer screen, and the second participant is presented with a list of potential objects they can guess the first person has seen. The second person, or the inquirer, sends a question to the respondent, to which he can answer either yes or no by looking at one of two blinking LED lights on the monitor that flash at different frequencies.

An answer of either no or yes will send a signal over the internet to the inquirer. This signal activates a magnetic coil placed behind the inquirer’s head. However, only a “yes” answer will generate a response that stimulates the visual cortex in the inquirer, causing him or her to perceive a flash of light called a “phosphene.” This flash appears as a blob, waves, or a line, and is created by briefly disrupting the visual field and letting the inquirer know that the answer is a yes. The inquirer is then able to deduce the correct item through a series of these yes or no questions without actually speaking to the respondent.

The researchers performed the experiment in dark rooms in two different labs at the University of Washington, which were nearly a mile apart. They tested five different pairs of participants, each playing 20 rounds of the game. The sessions were structured to include ten real games and ten control games to compare results.

The scientists made sure that the participants couldn’t use any additional clues besides the direct brain communication. The people asking the questions wore earplugs so they couldn’t associate the sounds produced by the different stimulation frequencies with specific responses. Similarly, the researchers took care to slightly alter the simulation intensities due to their ability to travel as sound waves through the skull that could be used as clues in the game.

The team also made sure to change the position of the coil near the inquirer’s head at the beginning of each round. For the control games, they added a plastic spacer that blocked the magnetic field from the inquirer’s head so that there were no phosphenes generated in response to the answers. The inquirers were not told if they had guessed the correct item, and were unaware if the game was a real round or just a control round. Stocco reiterated that they wanted to ensure that people were not cheating in the games.

The results of the study suggest that the researcher’s method for transmitting information was quite successful. The participants correctly guessed the object in 72 percent of the real games, and just 18 percent in the control games. There could have been many reasons why people guessed the incorrect object in the real games, likely due to difficulties in detecting whether or not a phosphene had actually occurred. Interpreting a new phenomenon is not always easy; many of the participants had never seen a phosphene before.

The respondents could have confused the signals before they were transmitted as well, contributing to a number of incorrect answers. The brain signal was subject to interference from hardware issues as well, so there was bound to be some variation in the actual results. According to Chantel Prat, a staff member at UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences and an associate professor of psychology, “While the flashing lights are signals that we’re putting into the brain, those parts of the brain are doing a million other things at any given time too.”

The experiment’s roots date back to 2013 when the researchers first figured out they could create a connection between peoples’ brains. Other researchers have successfully linked the brains of rats and monkeys, and even transmitted a brain signal from a human to a rat using electrodes directly implanted into their brains. The UW team was the first to figure out a way to transmit brain signals without invasive technology, by sending them over the internet to control the motion of another individual’s hand.

The experiment was born out of the research of one of the study’s co-authors, Rajesh Rao. Rao is a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington, and has spent years working on interfaces that allow people to activate devices with their brains. He began collaborating with Stocco and Prat to design an experiment that would show how far two linked human brains could go in 2011.

The team of researchers received a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck foundation and got to work designing the games that the linked participants would play in 2014. Their current goals involve seeing whether they can transfer brain signals from healthy brains to developmentally impaired ones, what they call “brain tutoring.” They are also trying to see if they can influence a brain that was affected by an external factor like a stroke or an injury. It could even be used for normal educational purposes between teacher and student.

The research team is close to being able to transmit entire brain states, which would involve sending a signal from an awake person to a tired one to see if he would suddenly enter a state of alertness. This could be used to help people suffering form attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, to focus.

The research has huge implications for the way we communicate. We already use the internet to send messages, recordings and videos, but we stop short of communicating without physically logging in. If researchers could reach an understanding that would allow people to directly transmit brain signals at massive distances, it would represent a massive step in the evolution of communications technology.

It could have huge implications for medicine, cognitive therapy, and could create massive efficiencies in the economy. It will likely be some time before this technology is available for use on a large scale, but the work of these three researchers at the University of Washington could very well change the way we live and interact with each other.

Daniel J. Brown

Daniel J. Brown (Editor-in-Chief) is a recently retired data analyst who gets a kick out of reading and writing the news. He enjoys good music, great food, and sports, with a slant towards Southern college football, basketball and professional baseball.

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