Duke University neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, M.D., Ph.D., is famous for his 20-year research on brain-machine interfacing, in which (among other things) EEG sensor caps on disabled patients’ heads let them control cursors on computer screens with the force of their thoughts, their own neurons’ electricity.
That research, which first made science news in 2000 with a Nature paper, made global news in 2014, when the paralyzed Juliano Pinto delivered the opening World Cup kick by “thinking” his digital leg into action; by tapping into what Nicolelis calls the “hundred billion electrical brainstorms” of the human brain.
Essentially, sensors on Pinto’s EEG cap read his “electrical brainstorms,” which were fed into a computer, which generated motor commands to his “exoskeleton.”
While perfecting this, Nicolelis’ team moved on. This month they published two papers in Scientific Reports on brain-brain interfaces, or “organic computers,” in which animals whose brains were wired together were able to mentally exchange sensory and motor information to solve problems together—often better than they could alone. One starred four rats with multi-electrode arrays implanted in their primary somatosensory cortices. One starred four rhesus monkeys.
Bioscience Technology talked to Dr. Nicolelis recently about the two new papers:
Q: Why do two studies at once?
A: We usually start testing ideas in rats as it is cheaper, easier, faster. Every concept we created in our lab over 20 years we tested in rats first. It turned out that in this one, the rats worked out very quickly, so we started the monkey. Because of the review process, it turned out the monkey paper got reviewed very quickly, so the journal put them together. But the monkey study is the one that has more practical implications for the future.
You are probably aware of brain- machine interfaces. When John Chapin and I created this paradigm in 1999, the idea was to study the brain and produce neuro-prosthetic devices that could help people move again. That has materialized a decade later. But to this day, all the working brain-machine interfaces—which have become very popular—have been done with a single subject operating the interface.
So a few years ago I asked myself and my students, “Could more than one subject’s brain collaborate to achieve a common task?” The results are in these two papers.
Q: Were you surprised by any findings?
A: We were very surprised that it could be done, and more easily than thought. If monkeys were proficient in a task task alone, they could readily synchronize their brains to produce a common output, and move an avatar arm in two or three dimensions collaboratively (one would mentally move it up and down, while another would mentally move it side to side, for the reward of juices).
Brain synchronization happens all the time
We were interested in getting multiple animals to synchronize brain activity. It only took visual feedback, a computer screen in front of each animal with the image of the avatar arm and the reward for completing each trial successfully. The ease with which this worked suggests this kind of synchronization in our brain activity may happen all the time, when we are watching TV in different houses around the world, or in a movie theater. The sound and visual feedback we are getting from the screen may synchronize brains of entire audiences. We may have stumbled on a brain mechanism that explains why audiences react together.
If you put together brain-brain and brain-machine, in the future multiple users may collaborate in brain-brain-machines, with very important clinical applications.
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