A human test subject in India has emailed the messages "hola" and "ciao" to three other people in France. Doesn't sound too impressive? Well, in this case the words were composed and interpreted using only the brain ... along with some high-tech help.
At a lab in India, the sender started by translating the letters of the words into a type of binary code, and then entering that code into a computer. The latter was achieved using a brain-computer interface in which an EEG cap measured the electrical activity in their brain. It did so as they performed an exercise in which they had to select the 1's and 0's that made up the binary-coded letters – in their proper sequence – using a video game-like computer screen interface that responded to changes in their EEG readings as they thought of moving either their hands or their feet (but didn't actually move them).
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That number sequence was then emailed to a lab in France. There, a robotic device used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to non-invasively transmit the numbers into the brains of the other three people.
Depending on whether it was relaying a 1 or a 0, it would stimulate their brain using either one intensity of electromagnetic pulse, or another. This in turn caused the test subjects to either see a phosphene (a flash of light) in their peripheral vision, or not see one – if they saw a flash, they knew it meant 1, while no flash meant 0. By translating that sequence of numbers back into text, they could figure out what the two words were.
Although it may have been a lot easier to just use a keyboard and type the words, the researchers are excited about what the experiment represents.
"By using advanced precision neuro-technologies including wireless EEG and robotized TMS, we were able to directly and noninvasively transmit a thought from one person to another, without them having to speak or write," said Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, Director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. "We believe these experiments represent an important first step in exploring the feasibility of complementing or bypassing traditional language-based or motor-based communication."
In an unrelated previous experiment conducted at the University of Washington, which utilized a similar setup, the sender was actually able to get the receiver to involuntarily move their hand. Additionally, scientists at the University of Southampton have successfully transmitted binary code between two peoples' brains, although a computer was required to record the received data.
A paper on the latest research was recently published in the journal PLOS One.