Connected brains share control of virtual limbs and predict the weather

Three rhesus macaque monkeys were made to operate the arm of a virtual monkey, while seated in separate rooms with either a handheld joystick or a brain control technique using special algorithms(Credit: Miguel A.L. Nicolelis)

If the thought of using a person's brainwaves to control a machine isn't quite enough to make the mind boggle, then mixing signals from multiple brains for the same purpose might just do the job. This far-fetched field of neuroscience is edging ever closer to real-world technology, with a number of recent research efforts achieving significant advances, with mind-controlled drone flight just one example. The latest step forward in this area sees the brains of separate animals hooked up and their combined motor and sensory information used for things like controlling a virtual arm, pattern recognition and even predicting the weather.

Brain-machine interfaces (BMI) are emerging, yet hugely promising systems that monitor the brain signals of a subject and translate them into controls for artificial devices. The technology sees an electroencephalograph (EEG) fitted with electrodes stuck on the subject's scalp to pick up and turn brainwaves into commands, a solution that has huge potential in helping people with physical disabilities communicate with their environment.

The technology has found a highly compatible bedfellow in modern robotics. In 2012 we saw Chinese researchers control an unmanned quadcopter with nothing other than brainpower, with projects from the University of Minnesota and Portugual's Brainflight following suit. But if this relationship is to bear fruit, the possibilities extend far beyond the pure fun of controlling flying robots. Researchers are hopeful of adapting it to improve quality of life by allowing sufferers of paralysis to control their own wheelchairs, for instance.

And in the eyes of some, the notion of brain-to-brain communication could be equally as revolutionary, by combining to form organic supercomputers, for example, or allowing those with locked-in syndrome to communicate, perhaps even beyond the boundaries of our conventional linguistic capability.

At the cutting edge of this field of research are neuroscientists at Duke University. They broke new ground in 2013 when they managed to link the sensory areas in the brains of two rats, resulting in a system where one rat would respond to the sensory experiences of the other. This followed on from a system that allowed monkeys to control arms of virtual avatars with their minds.

The scientists are describing their latest achievement as Brainets, networks of brains that combine forces to carry out simple tasks. The team demonstrated its newest solution across two different studies, the first of which involved rhesus macaque monkeys. Fitting arrays to the motor and somatosensory cortices allowed the scientists to monitor the electrical activity of more than 700 neurons from the three animals' brains.

The monkeys were then made to operate the arm of a virtual monkey, while seated in separate rooms using either a handheld joystick or a brain control technique using special algorithms. Across a series of experiments, the researchers found that when allowing each monkey control over two of the x, y and z axes they were able to work as a team and guide the arm toward a target. They note that as the animals received more training and were rewarded with juice, they became better coordinated and further in-sync.

The second study saw the the brains of four adult rats connected with microwire arrays stuck on the somatosensory cortices of the brain, to receive and transmit information. In an experiment where the rats were fed information on temperature and barometric pressure, they were able to combine their knowledge to predict an increased or decreased possibility of rain. The scientists report that at times, the network performed at the same or a higher level than a single rat brain on its own.

"This is the first demonstration of a shared brain-machine interface, a paradigm that has been translated successfully over the past decades from studies in animals all the way to clinical applications," says Miguel Nicolelis, co-director of the Center for Neuroengineering at the Duke University School of Medicine and lead author of the study. "We foresee that shared BMIs will follow the same track, and could soon be translated to clinical practice."

Nicolelis is now working to further Brainets with the Walk Again Project, the Brazil-based non-profit behind the brain-controlled exoskeleton that kicked off the FIFA 2014 World Cup. They are developing a non-invasive human Brainet to aid in rehabilitation for sufferers of paralysis.

The results of both studies (monkey Brainet, rat Brainet) were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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