Wireless brain-to-brain communication steps closer to human trials

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently issued $8 million in follow-up funding to a team of neuroengineers developing brain-to-brain and brain-to-machine technology.

Wireless brain-to-brain communication steps closer to human trials
Credit: Rice University
  • Brain-to-machine interfaces have existed for years, but wireless and non-invasive interfaces aren't yet precise enough to be useful in real-world applications.
  • In experiments on insects, a team at Rice University has successfully used light and magnetic fields to both read and write brain activity.
  • The team hopes to use the technology to restore vision to the blind, while DARPA hopes to use brain-machine interfaces on the battlefield.

Imagine wearing a helmet that enables you to communicate with people, or control a machine, with only your thoughts.

For the past few years, a team of neuroengineers at Rice University has been working to develop just that. The team recently received $8 million in follow-funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), having already conducted successful experiments on insects. Working alongside more than a dozen other groups, the researchers plan to use the funds to conduct further tests on rodents and, potentially within two years, on humans.

Of course, brain-machine interfaces aren't new. For decades, researchers have been developing technologies that connect brains to machines. People are already benefiting from surgically implanted brain-machine interfaces, such as amputees who use mind-controlled arm prostheses.

But non-invasive brain-machine interfaces are more complex, and they're currently not precise enough to be useful. That's why Rice University's MOANA ("magnetic, optical and acoustic neural access") effort aims to create an effective and noninvasive interface that enables brain-to-brain communication at the "speed of thought."

To read and write brain activity, the interfaces uses light and magnetic fields, both of which can penetrate the skull. In previous experiments, the researchers injected flies with nanoparticles and used ultrasound to guide the particles to specific neurons in the insects' brains. This allowed the researchers to control the flies' behavior. In more recent experiments, the team tested whether MOANA technology could transmit signals from brain to brain.

Insects that have been injected with nanoparticles

Credit: Rice University


"We spent the last year trying to see if the physics works, if we could actually transmit enough information through a skull to detect and stimulate activity in brain cells grown in a dish," Jacob Robinson, lead investigator on the MOANA Project at Rice University, told the university's Office of Public Affairs.

"What we've shown is that there is promise. With the little bit of light that we are able to collect through the skull, we were able to reconstruct the activity of cells that were grown in the lab. Similarly, we showed we could stimulate lab-grown cells in a very precise way with magnetic fields and magnetic nanoparticles."

If rodent experiments prove successful, the team plans to conduct trials on blind patients, who would be injected with nanoparticles. Using ultrasound waves, the researchers would guide the nanoparticles to the brain's visual cortex.

There, the nanoparticles would be stimulated to activate specific neurons, which could potentially restore partial vision to the patients. For example, blind people may someday wear a camera that transmits visual data through the interface and enables them to see what the camera is looking at.

Brain-machine interfaces in the battlefield

But while restoring vision to the blind is the near-term goal, DARPA has additional applications in mind. The MOANA Project is part of the agency's Next-Generation Nonsurgical Neurotechnology (N3) program, first announced in March 2018. The Rice University team and others have been working with DARPA to develop noninvasive brain-machine interfaces that soldiers may someday use to, say, control drones in the battlefield.

"If N3 is successful, we'll end up with wearable neural interface systems that can communicate with the brain from a range of just a few millimeters, moving neurotechnology beyond the clinic and into practical use for national security," Al Emondi, the N3 program manager, said in a statement.

"Just as service members put on protective and tactical gear in preparation for a mission, in the future they might put on a headset containing a neural interface, use the technology however it's needed, then put the tool aside when the mission is complete."

If the human trials prove successful, it could greatly accelerate the development and adoption of brain-machine and brain-to-brain interfaces. After all, even if other types of brain-machine interfaces are effective, it's likely that many people won't want to have a device implanted into their skull.

"That's the big idea, this non-surgical interface," Robinson said.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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The common cuttlefish

Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
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A scene from the 1996 Tim Burton film "Mars Attacks!"

Credit: "Mars Attacks!" / Warner Bros
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