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Playing mind games: Research shows how teams collaborate using brain-to-brain communication

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Brain-to-brain communication

Researchers at the UW are working on BrainNet, a research project that explores how people can send information brain-to-brain using a noninvasive interface. 

With BrainNet, participants use only their minds to communicate with others about simple tasks.

In this case study, three subjects worked together to solve a game that resembles tetris. The “senders” in this game can see the block to be placed and the space it needs to be placed into but cannot manipulate the block on the screen; the “receiver” can see only the block that needs to be placed. Then, the senders pass information about whether to rotate the block using the brain-to-brain interface.

Five groups of subjects used the system to complete the game with an average 81% accuracy.

Study participants wore electroencephalography caps which record electrical brain activity through electrodes on the scalp. This is combined with transcranial magnetic stimulation which delivers messages by stimulating the occipital lobe, the region of the brain that is responsible for visual perception. 

When the sender wants the receiver to rotate the block, the receiver perceives the stimulation as a flash or object in their field of vision. 

“When people think about brain-to-brain interfaces or telepathy in general, Hollywood movies kind of did a bad job in educating them,” lead author and UW CSE master’s student Preston Jiang said. “We kind of want to clear that myth … this is exploring transferring information using neurotechnologies.”

Researchers are still learning what information can be transferred and what methods can be used to transfer it. However, it’s a long way off from the popular idea that this might mean reading minds over the internet.

There are limitations to the complexity of information that can be transferred between people using this interface. One source of this is the complexity of decoding messages from the sender and encoding it into a signal for the receiver.

Still, BrainNet pushes new boundaries in brain-to-brain communication by eliminating physical movements to convey information and by allowing multiple people to interact together.

One especially interesting aspect of this research is that the receivers learned to discern reliable and unreliable information. When the signals sent to a receiver from a particular sender were set to frequently be wrong, the receiver had to choose between the different signals received. The study found that the receiver was able to learn to choose the information from the more reliable sender. This aspect of information exchange more accurately reflects real-life social interaction.

There are also other avenues through which information can be conveyed using this brain-to-brain interface. Previous research by UW CSE professor Rajesh Rao showed that noninvasive interfaces could use brain signals from one sender to control hand motions of a receiver by stimulating the motor cortex.

According to Jiang, there is interest in exploring how applications of this technology could be beneficial in communication for patients with neural injuries. It may also prove to be an interesting way of connecting people and collaborating as we learn more about the capabilities of brain-to-brain interfaces like BrainNet.

Reach reporter Rhea John at science@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @rheamjo

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