Scientists develop system that allows ‘brain-to-brain communication’ between two humans
By Niall Firth
Last updated at 2:46 PM on 15th October 2009
It is a vision of the future which could come straight from the latest Hollywood sci-fi spectacular.
But British scientists claim to have taken the first step towards humans communicating with one another using the power of thought alone.
A system developed by researchers at the University of Southampton allows two people to send a simple message over the internet using only their brains.
The breakthrough raises the possibility that ‘brain-to-brain’ communication could replace keyboards and telephones as the future of the internet.
Dr. Chris James with one of his volunteers during the brain-to-brain experiment at Southampton University
The experiment uses an established technology called ‘brain-computer interfacing’ (BCI) which uses electrodes attached to the head to monitor brain signals and convert them into commands.
Brain-computer interfacing is being explored by the U.S military to help wounded soldiers control prosthetic limbs, for example.
But the new experiment has taken it one step further.
According to Dr Christopher James, from Southampton University, his experiments are the first ‘baby step’ towards technology that would allow people to send images and words directly into other people’s minds.
Dr James said: ‘Here we show, for the first time, true brain to brain interfacing.
‘We have yet to grasp the full implications of this but there are various scenarios where B2B could be of benefit such as helping people with severe debilitating muscle wasting diseases, or with the so-called “locked-in” syndrome, to communicate and it also has applications for gaming.’
In the experiment two people are hooked up to electrodes that measure their brain activity as in standard BCI.
The first person then uses BCI to transmit thoughts, translated as a series of binary digits – a sequence of zeroes and ones – to their computer.
The experiment used two people hooked up to their computers using ECG devices which monitored their brain activity
The subject creates the individual numbers by imagining moving their left arm for zero and their right arm for one.
Their computer recognises the thoughts and sends them as a sequence over the internet to a second computer.
The second person’s PC picks up the message and an LED lamp attached to the computer flashes at two different frequencies to signal one and zero.
While the pattern of the flashing LEDs is too subtle to be picked by the second person, the effect of the difference in frequencies on the brain is monitored by their ECG electrodes.
The encoded information is then extracted from the brain activity of the second user and the PC deciphers whether a zero or a one was transmitted.
It takes around 30 seconds to send four numbers using this ‘brain-to-brain’ method.
Dr James stressed that the experiment was not telepathy, and that it was not yet possible to directly send an entire conscious thought from one mind directly to another.
But he said that the breakthrough could pave the way for people to send messages using thought alone but that this might require electrodes implanted directly in the brain.
Dr James appeared on BBC2’s ‘James May’s Big Ideas’ last year, talking about thought controlled wheelchairs and introducing the field of BCI.
Watch Dr James’ ‘brain-to-brain’ experiment at
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Technological inference of human thought from EEG was demonstrated in 1975. In FEASIBILITY STUDY FOR DESIGN OF A BIOCYBERNETIC COMMUNICATION SYSTEM, Lawrence Pinneo, reporting to US DoD from SRI, wrote:
… a reasonable assumption is that electrical activity of the brain during verbal thinking may be similar to that during overt speech. …
EEG responses for covert speech mimicked those of overt speech for the same subject, electrode and spoken word. When sources of error were reduced as much as possible, correct computer classification rates ranged from 52 to 72%, which was significant at p < 0.001. We conclude that both overt and covert speech can be identified by computer classification of electrophysiological responses and that a practical biocybernetic communication system is feasible …
– John Allman, Fleet, Hants. UK, 15/10/2009 17:52