Scientists have successfully linked the brains of multiple animals together for the first time to create a problem-solving “organic computer.” In two separate experiments, the joined-up brains of monkeys and rats respectively could control actions with their collective mind, giving hope to the idea that brain-to-brain interfaces will one day be possible for humans, too.
The first study—led by the co-director of Duke University’s Center for Neuroengineering, Miguel Nicolelis—saw scientists fit three monkeys with devices that could record the electrical activity of neurons taking place in the brain’s motor region. The animals were tasked with learning to independently control an on-screen image of an avatar arm, before being given joint control of it, whereby they had to synchronize their brain activity in order to use it to reach for a virtual ball.
The experiment was then made more challenging when each monkey was able to maneuver only one dimension at a time. In a great sign for the future, simian synchronicity prevailed and the target was reached.
While the brains of the monkeys were linked through computers (not directly), the four rats in Nicolelis’s second study were connected to both.
Each had two electrodes inserted into the brain, one used to stimulate motor activity and the other to record its movements. In one experiment, electrical impulses were sent to one rat, while the other three synchronized their neural behavior in accordance with that of the first. In another, impulses were administered to the entire group, who was then rewarded if they united their brain activity.
After 10 training sessions, the rats were able to perform this task 61 percent of the time, rendering this “super brain” like a computer that is able to store information and recognize patterns. “This is a fascinating study that harnesses the power of collective thought and leverages it to enhance performance beyond what is possible by an individual brain,” says Alaa Ahmed, associate professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder. “It almost sounds like something out of The Avengers. It will revolutionize not only the nature of communication but also our understanding of how animals learn to communicate with one another.”
“Even if one monkey dropped out in one trial, the brain net is resilient,” Nicolelis told The Guardian. “Imagine if you had, not three, but a million. That would be extremely resilient.”
Researchers led another demonstration that challenged the rats to combine individual pieces of information they were receiving in order to predict the outcome of a task—something they could do with a greater degree of accuracy when linked up, as opposed to operating solo. This was undeniably a major green light for the future of “brain joining,” given the elevated efficacy of the animals involved when working together.
“This means we can look also forward to future studies that allow us to understand how different forms of communication can lead to more rapid and more improved cooperation and problem-solving.”
The studies are further major revelations in the field of mind control for Nicolelis, who last year developed a robotic exoskeleton that could be powered by thought. Intended as a futuristic antidote to wheelchairs, the hydraulic-powered alloy suit could enable movements that the user’s legs were no longer able to perform. Similarly, Nicolelis has health designs for the superbrain, hoping that language difficulties incurred by a stroke or similar ailment could be solved by connecting the relevant regions of a healthy person’s brain to the same area in the brain of someone needing to re-learn those skills.
The dramatic findings gives rise to many questions, namely: If human brains were to be linked up in this way, could there could be a risk of manipulation, or the transposing of personal information from one entity to another? But while the prospect of one’s entire bank of neurological data being synced onto the brain of another would, rightly, be concerning, the complexity and individuality of emotions—unlike actions which can be learnt through task repetition—makes this highly unlikely.
They say two heads are better than one—and this may just be the research to prove it.