Are 3 brains connected via BrainNet better than one?

Experiments show brain-to-brain collaboration.

  • Scientists connect three people's brains together to play Tetris.
  • BrainNet may represent first baby steps in brain "social networking".
  • Imagine having two other people in on your most private deliberations.

The title of the paper just submitted for peer review says it all: 'BrainNet: A Multi-Person Brain-to-Brain Interface for Direct Collaboration Between Brains'. Developed by scientists from the University of Washington and Carnegie Mellon, the system passes simple signals from one person's brain to another, allowing for collaborative decisions: The first meeting of minds involved manipulating pieces in a game of Tetris. The hope is that BrainNet can, over time, be scaled up for informationally richer communication.

The BrainNet interface

The BrainNet three-person brain-to-brain interface (BBI) system combines an electroencephalography (EEG) sensor that records a signal from a Sender's brain, decodes it, and delivers it to another person's occipital cortex through a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) cap. It's perceived by the Receiver as a phosphene, or a brain-produced flash. Two Senders can be connected to the same Receiver.

Credit: Jiang, et al

YES and NO choices are represented by the circles at the edge of each screen. "BCI" stands for "Brain to Computer Interface" while "CBI" is the abbreviation for "Computer to Brain Interface."

A game of Tetris for the ages

Tetris trios

The researchers recruited 15 subjects—18–35 yrs, eight female—and divided them into five trios, each of which contained two Senders and one Receiver.

The task

The experiments consisted of a single task performed multiple times: The successful completion of a single round of Tetris. As in any Tetris game, the goal was to rotate, if necessary, a slowly falling piece so that it successfully completed a row at the bottom of the screen. Both Senders offered advice—not always in agreement—to the Receiver.

During each task the Senders saw both the dropping piece and the bottom row—the Receivers saw only the dropping piece.

(Jiang, et al)

Thinking about a yes or no choice

As a piece moved downward, each Sender was presented a yes/no choice regarding whether or not the piece needed to be rotated or not. He or she was instructed to stare at either the on-screen YES or NO lights to move a cursor toward the light representing the desired choice.

(Jiang, et al)

The lights flashed at different frequencies —17 kHz per second for YES and 15 kHz for NO — allowing the EEG to use the different rates as a way of identifying the Sender's decision.

BrainNet steps in

The EEGs transmitted each YES or NO via TCP/IP to a decoder for conversion to a single TMS pulse that was then delivered to the Recipient's TMS cap. If the pulse was strong enough, a phosphene would appear to the Recipient signifying a "yes, rotate the piece" signal. If not, no phosphene would be seen, meaning, "no, don't do anything."

Unreliable help

It was up to the recipient to make a decision as to who was providing the best instructions. The researchers introduced this element as a way of assessing the extent to which recipients could filter out "noise," which is to say, worthless information.

The paper says, "To investigate whether the Receiver can learn the reliability of each Sender and choose the more reliable Sender for making decisions, we designed the system to deliberately make one of the Senders less accurate than the other. Specifically, for each session, one Sender was randomly chosen as the 'bad' Sender and in ten out of sixteen trials in that session, this Sender's decision when delivered to the Receiver was always incorrect, both in the first and second round of the trial."

Over the course of the tests, the researchers found that Recipients became quite good at tuning out their bad Senders.

(Jiang, et al)

Is this what you really want?

Once the Recipient had rotated the piece or not, the piece was displayed for the Senders hanging halfway down the screen in its current orientation. At this point, the Senders could once again send instructions to the Recipient who could then rotate it, if necessary, for the piece's final correct placement.

Encouraging results

The paper found in the end that, "Five groups, each with three human subjects, successfully used BrainNet to perform the Tetris task, with an average accuracy of 81.25%." That's pretty impressive and way above the random odds of success, as the report's figure illustrates.

(Jiang, et al)

Of course, BrainNet is just a beginning at best, dealing with extremely simple binary choices from Senders, and a fairly simple binary choice for the Recipient to make. This nothing like sharing a complex thought. The team has considered adding other, levels of exchange, perhaps via fMRI, to give greater depth to the type of information that can be sent and received. Their hope, though, is that BrainNet is an early step in the "possibility of future brain-to-brain interfaces that enable cooperative problem solving by humans using a 'social network' of connected brains."

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Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.