Students Cooperate Using Brain-To-Brain Communication


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

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146 Students Cooperate Using Brain-To-Brain Communication
Image courtesy of University of Washington. Students across campus cooperated playing computer games through a direct brain-to-brain interface

The idea of direct brain to brain communication is a staple of science fiction, but progress is being made to make it a reality. Students have had their brains directly connected so that they can cooperate based on thoughts alone

In February, Cornell researchers demonstrated that two monkeys could be connected electrically so that one could control the other's ability to move a joystick. Now, the University of Washington has achieved something similar in humans.


In PLOS ONE, a team led by Professor Rajesh Rao describes using electroencephalography (EEG) to record the brain signals of six students which were then transmitted over the Internet and delivered using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

The students were playing a computer game in which receivers needed to press a touchpad to defend a virtual city from rockets fired by a pirate ship, while avoiding hitting a plane bringing relief supplies. Timing was crucial.

The sender could see the screen, and therefore know when to fire a cannon to shoot down the rockets. However, the firing had to be done by the receiver, who was blocked from seeing the screen. Their connection allowed the sender to affect the motor cortex region of the receiver, causing them to fire the cannon. To prevent any subtle communication by other means, the students were kept in separate buildings while the game was underway.

“Whenever the receiver’s computer received a fire command, a TMS pulse was delivered to a pre-selected region of the receiver's brain. The stimulation caused a quick upward jerk of the Receiver's right hand,” the paper reports, which then rebounded with enough force to fire the cannon. The entire process took two thirds of a second, mostly in the hand's up then down movement.


Control trials were done where the brain-to-brain channel was disabled. Not surprisingly, with no input from the sender on when to fire, no rockets were destroyed during the controls. Of the three pairs of players, success when the channels were in operation was varied – 25% for one pair and 37.5% and 83.3% for the others. It appears that the least successful pair failed, not because the brain-to-brain channel didn't work, but because the sender was lousy at playing the game. A seperate study used the same combination of EEG and TMS to send less useful information across the world.

While dreaming of teaching that is not “limited by language,” the authors admit we are a long way from doing away with words. “The neural underpinnings of sensorimotor information are much better understood than those of conceptual and abstract information,” they point out. Nevertheless, they have received a grant to try to extend the research to other aspects of the brain's behavior, such as finding a way that one person could send messages to stop another from falling asleep.

H/T Science Daily