The Transmission of Thought

by Courtney Elvin

Really, it is not a sci-fi plot! Brain-to-brain communication has become a reality in today’s world. Recently, a team of international neuroscientists and robotics engineers was successfully able to facilitate the transmission of a message directly between the brains of two human subjects with existing brain-computer hardware and the Internet. This is the first direct brain-to-brain communication of its kind.

The messages “hola” and “ciao” were sent from subject A in India to subject B in France. Both subjects underwent non-invasive methods, translating brain activity to binary code and back. The paper, titled “Conscious Brain-to-Brain Communication in Humans Using Non-Invasive Technologies,” was published in PLOS ONE in August 2014.

For the experiment, the emitter subject was fitted with an Internet-linked electroencephalogram (EEG), a non-invasive type of brain computer interface (BCI). The EEG is a commonly utilized medical diagnostic technology that uses a series of electrodes fitted to the outside of the head to detect brain waves such as voluntary motor imagery (thoughts directing body parts to move).

The message “hola” was first translated from letters to binary code (which consists of computer instructions made up of 1’s and 0’s) and presented to the emitter subject one at a time for interpretation by the BCI. The emitter subject encoded each number (1 or 0) into the Internet-linked EEG by imagining the movement of either of his legs (the brain activity for which was detected and encoded as 0) or arms (detected and encoded as 1). After training for the experiment, the subject’s encoding accuracy exceeded 90 percent.

This series of 1’s and 0’s was then sent via the Internet to the receiving subject, who sat 5,000 miles away fitted with a different type of non-invasive computer brain interface called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Also attached to the outside of the head, this device looks more like a wide, adjustable robotic arm with only a circular sensor making contact with the back of the head, anatomically corresponding to the brain’s vision center (the occipital lobe).

In this experiment, the TMS delivered magnetic pulses to stimulate the right occipital cortex, producing perceived flashes of light in a calculated location in the mind’s visual field. Normal external sensory cues, including visual, auditory, and tactile, were purposefully inhibited to ensure that the subject’s reporting of a signal originated from the TMS stimulation.

While the procedure is still clunky and impractical—taking 70 minutes to transmit one four-letter message—it is a revolutionary leap in the field of direct brain-to-brain communication. This research demonstrates the plausibility of a novel concept that holds the potential to advance forms of communication that could supplement or bypass the language and motor means of speech.

According to researchers, the “initial results suggest new research directions, including the non-invasive direct transmission of emotions and feelings or the possibility of sense synthesis in humans, that is, the direct interface of arbitrary sensors with the human brain using brain stimulation, as previously demonstrated in animals with invasive methods.”

Building on past work in brain-to-brain communication, the significance of this study lies in the novel use of human subjects for both the emitter and receiver positions, the completely non-invasive nature of the technology and the consciously communicated content. There is hope that one day this procedure may be used in the detection of emotion, sensory stimuli and subjective sensations. Computer interface technologies coupled with the human brain open up amazing sci-fi-like possibilities in person-to-person and computer-to-person communication.