Friday, March 1, 2013

Thoughts electrically transferred between brains

Organ transplantations are nothing new nowadays, as hospitals are readily replacing various organs, including lungs, heart, kidneys and others. There is one organ that remains elusive, and that is the brain. It is obviously impossible to put the brain of one person in another body and make it work. It is also unclear what would happen: is it possible to transfer a personality from one body to another? While brain transplants remain impossible, several interesting studies revealed it is possible to partially replace brain tissue. Scientists from the Duke University School of Medicine have now found a way to transfer thoughts, in the form of behavioural patterns, from one rat to another by means of electrical stimulation.

Brains basically work with electricity in order to create thoughts and control our bodily functions. By learning the electrical patterns in the brain, it is for example possible to use robot limbs by merely using your mind. However, instead of absorbing the electrical patterns created by the brain and using that as input, we can also create our own electrical patterns and thereby artificially stimulate the brain. It may 'inject' thoughts into someone's brain, and that is a concept that was explored by the Duke University scientists.

What they developed is a so-called brain-to-brain-interface. In an experimental setup, the brains of two rats were connected by electrical wires. One of the animals, the 'input rat', was taught to respond to a visual cue: once the indicator light above a lever was switched on, the rat was supposed to press it and receive a reward. Rats are known as quick learners and readily discover the relationship between the light and the reward associated with the lever. The brain patterns associated with learning this ability were recorded and transferred to a second rat, also connected to the electrical wire.

The second rat was put in the same experimental setup, using the recorded brain patterns from the first rat, that learned the trick with the lever. The scientists now gave the second rat the option to press one of the levers, but did not provide a visual cue. That means the second rat had to rely on the choice that the first rat made, and use its brain waves to make that exact same decision. And that appeared to be the case in about 70 percent of the attempts that were made, little below the theoretical maximum of 78 percent that the scientists predicted.

While this by itself is already an interesting result, the scientists made the brain-to-brain connection even more intriguing. The first rat, or the input rat, was not given the full reward when the second rat, relying on the brain input from the first rat, pressed the wrong lever. According to the scientists, this lead to a behavioural collaboration between the two animals. Apparently, when the second rat made a mistake, the first rat 'responded' by adjusting its brain patterns, to make it easier for the second rat to pick up. This is quite a peculiar result.

The aforementioned experiments were repeated by hooking up the rats to the internet. By using the internet for data transfer, it is possible to put the two rats far away from each other while still maintaining the connection. A repetition of the experiments with two rats, each on a different continent, showed that they could still maintain the same brain connection, although it got a bit more 'noisy' on the line.

According to the scientists, this is the first time a successful 'thought transplant' was achieved. It is amazing to see that we can basically learn by connecting our brains to some kind of internet that contains brain instructions. This was a proof of concept with relatively simple forms of behaviour in an animal that has a much more simple brain than ours, which means it remains to be seen whether we can replicate this with more meaningful results. However, that does not make the results any less intriguing.

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