Making Steps Toward Brain-to-Brain Communication

I-LABS' Andrea Stocco and Chantel Prat have shown that information can be transferred from one adult brain to another.

Imagine learning something new without studying, becoming alert without a jolt of caffeine, or recovering motor or speech functions after a brain injury without extensive rehabilitation training.

Stocco and Prat, of the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, are part of a UW research team that is advancing the capability of transferring information directly between human brains. Known as brain-to-brain interface, the technology could become an information-sharing milestone of the likes of the telephone and Internet.

In August 2013, the team, which includes Rajesh Rao, a UW professor of computer science and engineering, was the first to demonstrate the transfer of motor information between two human brains. Since then, the researchers refined their brain-stimulation protocols and tested their brain-to-brain interface with additional pairs of subjects.

The results were published Nov. 5 in the journal PLOS ONE.

"The new study brings our brain-to-brain interfacing paradigm from an initial demonstration to something that is closer to a deliverable technology," co-author Stocco, a research assistant professor at I-LABS and in the UW department of psychology, said in a university news release. "Now we have replicated our methods and know that they can work reliably with walk-in participants."

Watch a video of the experiment:

What's next? With a new $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation, the research team is taking the work a step further in an attempt to decode and transmit more complex brain processes.

"Our ultimate goal is to test whether we can transmit something more complex than simple sensory and motor information," Stocco said. "We would like to see whether we can ultimately transmit a real thought from one brain to another."

With the new foundation funding, over the next few years the research team will continue to expand the types of information they can transfer brain to brain, from visual and sensory information to psychological phenomenon such as concepts, thoughts and mental states like alertness and sleepiness. Ultimately, a "brain tutoring" paradigm could be developed in which information is transferred directly from the brain of a teacher to a student.

"Many of the greatest technological advances center on increasing communication abilities; invention of the telegraph, the telephone and certainly the Internet completely changed society," said Prat, an assistant professor at I-LABS and in the UW psychology department. She and Stocco co-direct the Cognition and Cortical Dynamics Laboratory at I-LABS.

"Brain-to-brain communication circumvents the need for language to communicate ideas. This opens a whole new era in how we share information with each other," she said.

But the technology also presents ethical questions. Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Will it transform society for the better?

Stocco said that he and his UW collaborators are very aware of the ethical dilemmas and possible misuses of the technology. (Stocco and Rao include this in a recent article they wrote for Scientific American Mind).

"To the best of our knowledge, any significant risk posed by brain-to-brain technology is tied to how powerful this technology becomes," Stocco said. "In every scenario we have considered, we found that unethical and exploitative use of brain-to-brain interfacing would be possible only when the technology is developed to a level that we cannot even currently imagine. On the other end, applications that might be helpful for society at large (i.e., neuro-rehabilitation) could be possible sooner. For this reason, we believe it is worthwhile to continue on research."

Selected Media Coverage:
NBC News
The Independent
Washington Post
Daily Mail
Voice of America
Discovery News
Scientific American Mind
Puget Sound Business Journal
Toronto Sun
International Business Times UK
Huffington Post