“My mind to your mind,” goes the Vulcan proverb. “My thoughts to your thoughts.” The Vulcans knew what was up. Are we entering an age where brain merging is an actual thing?
Though we never thought it would ever leave the sci-fi world, the Vulcan mind meld is swiftly becoming a reality, although we can’t use our hands to do it — at least not yet. By wiring the brains of animals together, scientists have discovered a way to transfer brain activity from one animal to another, allowing the animals to teach each other how to solve problems. And it’s not limited to just two animals, either.
Researchers have been developing brain-to-brain interfaces for several years: In 2013, Miguel Nicolelis, a neurobiologist at Duke University, found that rats whose brains were linked via electrodes would work together to solve tasks, even when they were in separate rooms. To do this, the researchers implanted microelectrodes into the motor cortex — the part of the brain that deals with voluntary movement — of two rats. One rat was taught to hit a certain lever to get a reward, and the electrodes recorded the activity in the rat’s brain when it got it right. This activity was ‘transferred’ over to the second rat, which was set up in a room with an identical lever-reward system. The second rat, receiving brain input from its pal next door, hit the right lever 70% of the time. This experiment continued to work even when the rats were thousands of miles apart and the brain signals were transferred over the Internet.
Now, Nicolelis and his team have announced in the journal Scientific Reports that they can do the same thing but with multiple animals — creating a mind-meld network referred to as a “brainnet.” This time, their experiments involved two or three rhesus macaques linked together via brain electrodes in separate rooms. The monkeys were tasked with controlling a single robotic monkey arm, but each of them had control over different dimensions. Over time, the monkey brainnet learned to work together to move the robotic arm toward a moving target, earning each of the monkeys a small reward of juice.
In another experiment, the researchers hooked up five rats via their brains. To create a sensory “cue” for the rats, they then induced a tactile sensation in the rats by electrically stimulating the somatosensory cortex, which deals with the sense of touch. When presented with this cue, the rats learned that they would be rewarded with water if they managed to synchronize their brain activity. How they did so is still not fully clear, but they were able to do it.
The researchers eventually found that rats could pick up on different patterns of electrical stimulation — the brain cues — and modify their synchronized behavior in response. By ‘teaching’ rats to associate certain brain patterns with changes in temperature and air pressure, researchers even managed to get rats to predict the chance of rain. “The rats could divide tasks across animals, so their individual workload was much smaller,” Nicolelis told LiveScience. “We didn’t expect that in the beginning.”
We’re a long way off from transferring thoughts Vulcan-style, but this research shows that it isn’t impossible. This sort of technology could have multitude of uses: linking paralyzed and healthy people as a new type of physical therapy or, as the researchers suggest, even forming the core of a new, “organic computer” paradigm powered by a network of brains.