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Mind Melds and Brain Beams: The Dawn of Brain-to-Brain Communication

Music students download the technique of their favorite pianist or singer directly into their brains. Medical students download the skills of a seasoned surgeon or diagnostician. And each one of us routinely uploads our thoughts and memories to the digital cloud. While these scenarios still lie in the future, rudimentary versions of the necessary brain-to-brain technology exist today. But the ability to directly influence another person’s brain raises serious questions about human rights and individual freedoms. This program will present the latest technology and explore how the ethical implications of enhanced thinking go to the heart of consciousness itself.

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BRAIN TO BRAIN- WORLD SCIENCE FESTIVAL

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NARRATOR: Evolution has spent a long time finding ways for living creatures to communicate. But nothing is as powerful or as mysterious as the human brain. 80 billion neurons wire the brain. And each cell is connected chemically and electrically with 10,000 others at give or take a 100 trillion synapses. The brain is the world’s most complex network, loaded with more dynamic interconnections than there are stars and planets in the Milky Way. For nearly all our history, human beings have had nothing but language and gesture to move information out of the brain. And only our sensory organs to pull information in. But what if our brains could communicate directly with each other, bypassing the need for language? Researchers are already proving that brain to brain communication is possible. In a first of its kind experiment, signals from one person’s brain were transmitted over the Internet to control the hand motions of another person within a split second of sending that signal.In another kind of experiment involving human to animal communication, scientists were able to take signals from a human brain and transfer them to an animal brain using signals from the human to move a rat’s tail. And research in the field of brain computer interfaces has patients operating complex prosthetic arms solely with the power of their minds. Science has begun to look not only at the brain’s anatomy, but also with the way it works in real time. How the interconnections and electrochemical activity generate movement intellect and emotion. How we move our eyes and limbs. How we solve certain problems or even how we fall in love. We may be on the brink of discovering how our minds work as we probe the most complex structures and deepest mysteries of the human brain.  

JOHN DONVAN, JOURNALIST: So I know what you’re thinking.You’re thinking, when is this guy gonna get on with it? And I know that, because I’m guessing and I think I’m probably right at least for some of you, but it’s not because I got into your heads or because we had a mind meld. That’s something that I can’t do and I think most of you can’t do. But what we’re actually going to be discussing tonight is the horizon of a world where we’re approaching in which we have the first glimmers of that being possible. We’re going to be talking about new research and developments in technology that actually allow for communication, the passage of information brain to brain without words being spoken. Without language, without hands signals, without any kind of the usual use of senses to get that information across. It’s brain to brain. Human brain to human brain and even human brain to animal brain. And how exciting is that? Or how scary is that? It’s all that we’re going to be discussing tonight with a panel of scientists who are really truly at the front edge of this research. Are going to be showing you their experiments, talking about how they work. Talk about the pitfalls, talking about the possibilities. And then we are going to be discussing just how much we want all of this to be happening in our lives. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? So warm up your applause lines- your applause moments again because we’re going to be welcoming a series of superb panelists to the stage, beginning first with the distinguished professor of neuroscience at Duke University Medical School and founder of Duke’s Center for Neuro-Engineering. He was first to propose and to demonstrate that animals and human subjects can use electrical brain activity to directly control neural prosthetic devices via brain machine interfaces. Please welcome Dr. Miguel Nicolelis.Our next guest is an associate professor of psychology at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. Her work focuses on biological constraints on information processing to better understand individual mind brain relationships. She was named Young Investigator for 2011 by the Society for Text and Discourse. Please welcome Chantel Prat.

[00:05:01] DONVAN: Our next speaker is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington Seattle. He develops computer models of how complex cognitive processes take place in the human brain. He helped develop the first non-invasive direct brain to brain interface in humans. Please say hello to Andrea Stocco. Next up a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School. He has done early pioneering works in developing real time functional magnetic resonance imaging that are used to interpret the human mind. He also developed a new mode of non-invasive brain stimulation modality that uses focused ultrasound waves to control regional neural functions. Please welcome Seung-Schik Yoo. And also, let’s bring to the stage a professor of medical ethics and psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. He’s a past president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. His latest book Rights Come to Mind explores brain injury, ethics, the struggle for consciousness. He also teaches at Yale Law School. Please welcome Dr. Joe Fins. And Joe, before we get started with the scientists-the researchers sitting between us because as an medical professional, you’re also a scientist. You also teach law. You are the bioethicist on the panel. So before we hear about the experiments, give us a little look ahead, a little crib sheet about the things we want to be keeping in mind as we hear where the research is pushing into.

JOSEPH FINS, PHYSICIAN, MEDICAL ETHICIST : OK so we haven’t had a brain to brain interface yet. But I-so I don’t know what they’re really thinking. But what I want to just say, and I think is a kind of a preamble to this, is that there is a real privilege to do science and there’ve been historical abuses of science psychosurgery and the like. A lot of utopianism in the past, a lot of hype that was never realized. So I think my admonition is to keep it real and keep it focused on human need and not make it a science project. But make an effort in the service of humanity, for the good of humanity.

DONVAN: Which doesn’t mean, seriously I’m going to use the term Debbie Downer, which sounds funny, but you’re not being a downer about the possibilities.

FINS: No, I’m a science hawk. I mean I was involved in a project that was published in Nature about a decade ago using the first use of deep brain stimulation in the minimally conscious state. And for 15 years, I wrote papers about why I thought we should do that. I’m a science hog. I want science to progress. But I think it’s very important that scientists act responsively and responsibly at the same time. And I know that my colleagues will do that.

DONVAN: All right listen let’s look at where the science is taking us. What we have on the panel, the panel’s arranged roughly from- from this end to that end, roughly speaking chronological order of the development of some of the real groundbreaking research that’s been done in this. And so we’re going to work down in that order. And again, our order is not perfect because we’re all doing different projects at different times, but in terms of certain landmarks, and I want to start with you Miguel. I know you- how did you get into the, just a little biography, how did you get into the mind business?

MIGUEL NICOLELIS, NEUROSCIENTIST: Mind business, yeah getting out of my mind. I was in medical school when I started working and research in Brazil. You go to medical school after high school and in my third year out of six years there, in medical school is six years

DONVAN: So you’re 16 years old?

NICOLELIS: I was 17 and you’re 17 years old in your gross anatomy class and you meet a scientist and you just fall in love with what he’s talking about the brain. So I went to his lab and start working with him. But at that time, before I went to get my Ph.D. I realized that people were recording only one-the electrical signals have only one neuron at a time. That was mid 80s. And I talked to my professor, Dr. Caesar, “So this is crazy. It’s like trying to understand a rainforest one tree at a time. It’s never going to work.”

DONVAN: And was your professor impressed by your thought, or did he tell you to shut it?

NICOLELIS: No no he told me. I know- I know the perfect place in Brazil to go to do this kind of work. Recording many neurons simultaneously. I said,  “Wonderful. In Sao Paulo, in New York or the Southern Hemisphere? Where should I go?” He said, “It’s called the airport.” You go to the airport and you’ll find a crazy American that will buy the idea, because you can only really do these crazy things over there. And I did find John Chapin, crazy, wonderful man who wanted to do the same thing. That was ’88 and people were recording just one single neuron at a time and John- I wrote a letter in broken English to him and I said, “John I want to record 100 neurons simultaneously.” And it said, “Well this is actually what I want to do so why don’t you come over and join me in Philadelphia?” And that’s what I did. I came to the City of Brotherly Love looking for brotherly love I never found. I found the Eagles. And then we start developing the technology for recording many neurons simultaneously in behaving animals. And that was the key, an awake, fully behaving animal.

[00:10:14] DONVAN: So we jumped to the work that were going to be talking about tonight. Goes back to what you’re- what you were going to be starting with.

NICOLELIS: Well we- we developed this technique in the mid 90s, but the late ’90s, ’98, John and I got to reach the conclusion that to really make our friends in neuroscience understand the power of population coding, we had to develop something new. So in 1999. we published a paper in which rats were using 48 neurons. The electrical storm produced by 48 neurons to control a robotic lever. Just one dimensional movement without moving.

DONVAN: First this was first time.

NICOLELIS: That was the first time ever, a demonstration a closed loop of an animal, but people said, “Oh these are just rats. We want to see something more interesting.” And that’s when we went for monkeys, because that’s what is assumed to be the next step to demonstrate any knowledge and the first clip we have is my favorite monkey, Aurora. She’s first playing a game, a video game, using a joystick and she was very good at it. And in fact, you can even see how well she tried to cheat it, you know, trying to get that target with the cursor inside. And then we soon realized that if we create a link between her brain and that robotic device that you’re seeing next to it, we could get Aurora to control the robotic device just by thinking so.

DONVAN: So now we’re seeing the- Aurora’s using the joystick.

NICOLELIS: In the beginning,

DONVAN: Her-her. What do you call a monkey’s paw? A paw?

NICOLELIS: A hand. Yeah a monkey hand. Ok. They’re close to us.

DONVAN: A novel called The Monkey’s Paw. So so that hand- like object on them- attached to the monkey is how Aurora’s controlling it.

NICOLELIS: Yeah so Aurora was learning with the joystick first. What you’re seeing here, is the first time I like to say, that a primate’s brain, if you can have the video again, I will explain better. But that was the first time a primate’s brain liberated itself from the physical limits of the body and was acting in the world. First, she’s using the joystick. That’s the training phase and we are recording a hundred neurons’ electrical signals, about 100 neurons, we are mixing them up, you extracting the motor commands, and send them to the robotic device. And then we took the joystick away and Aurora realized that she didn’t need to move the arm anymore. She could control that device just by imagining the movement.

DONVAN: OK, so we can’t see Aurora. What’s Aurora hooked up to? Well I mean, if we- if we could see Aurora’s head.

NICOLELIS: Oh no. You would see just a cap and some wires like coming out, going to the amplifiers, taking these electrical signals to computers and mixing them up.

DONVAN: And what’s going on that Aurora without using her paw hand is able to- what is- what is the monkey doing?

NICOLELIS: Yeah the monkey was- what we demonstrated here is that we could get an animal to realize that it didn’t need to produce the overt movement of the body to control the cursor and get a drop of juice. That was the reward she was getting every time she put the cursor inside the target. She could interact directly with that device and through a brain machine interface- and the brain machine interface I would say, is the grandfather of brain to brain because that’s where all was started.

DONVAN: I guess what I’m trying to understand is that Aurora had no, as far as you know, because obviously can’t directly communicate.  But it’s not-  you’re not arguing that Aurora had some sense of, “I want to get the juice. I’m going to move the stick.” It’s more that something more spontaneous or some sort of learning habit.

NICOLELIS: Well, she had to learn and she realized by trial and error that when we took the joy stick away, there was no point to moving the arm. There was no causal linkage between the arm movement and the cursor. Somehow she figured out that she could just imagine something. And we were able to record it and soon, she realized, OK this is the prototype of a free lunch. I don’t need to move. I’m just going to get, you know, 400 mL of juice.

DONVAN: Somehow she figured out, you know, that she did.

NICOLELIS: She did. She did because we were recording images over her body and we could show that for long periods of time, she was controlling that without producing.

DONVAN: I just want to go to somebody else on the panel now and Seung-Schik, you’re up at Harvard. The news of what Miguel’s doing breaks. Tell us, as a professional, how big a deal was this.

SEUNG-SCHIK YOO, NEUROSCIENTIST, ENGINEER: So I still remember the morning, it was around 11 or 10. I was reading my email and the e-mail started coming up to me and said, “Seung-Schik, you’ve got to see this.” And there’s a news about Miguel’s work. So the reason that people were sending me an e-mail, is the- it’s such a striking demonstration of human’s ability to interpret the cellular level neural activity and how to interpret it and then translate into a computer commands to execute other computer related commands and robotic controls. So that’s an amazing thing, like that.

[00:15:11] DONVAN: So it was a big deal.

YOO: Oh yeah.

DONVAN: Do you agree, colleagues? Everybody remembers this- this day. OK. So you’re a big deal.

NICOLELIS: I do remember today too.

DONVAN: So next up for you, where did you go next?

NICOLELIS: Yeah, when we saw that, we asked the question, “Do we need to have the robotic command actually next to the monkey? Could we have this somewhere else. Could we have that across the planet?” So we-I hook up with one of my best friends, a roboticist, Gordon Cheng. At that time, I was working in Kyoto Laboratories in Kyoto and said, “Gordon would we be able to make our monkeys control your humanoid robot to walk just through a brain machine interface that goes around the planet?” And it has to be quick, it has to be 300 milliseconds. So our monkeys were walking on a treadmill and we are recording to bring activity and send it to this humanoid robot, CB1, and seeing whether the robot could walk under the control of the monkey. And we are projecting exactly this movement in front of the monkey, and the monkey would only get reward, juice- a drop of juice, if the monkey steps on the ground on the correct timing. And we turn off treadmill at Duke.

NICOLELIS: And as long as we keep giving the monkey juice, even though the monkey didn’t walk itself, the robot would walk in Japan. So the monkey didn’t care that it wasn’t its own body that was moving or not.

DONVAN: Did the monkey have a visual of the robot?

NICOLELIS: Yes, it had a screen in front of it, projecting the images coming in real time from Japan.

DONVAN: So the monkey was aware that the robot’s motion was vital to the getting the juice.

NICOLELIS: Absolutely. The monkey learned that stepping that you saw there was vital to get the orange juice. And Gordon really wanted to do that as fast as possible so now we can review it ten years later. He broke every fire wall between Duke and Kyoto. We don’t even know if that was legal or not. Sorry. But he-he went through everything and we got that under 300 milliseconds.

DONVAN: And all of the flashing lights and zigzagging lines we just saw-

NICOLELIS: These are brain activity from the monkey. This is the day we were recording that and we got a friend at the New York Times at a time they didn’t believe that that could happen. So they put a journalist at Duke and a journalist in Kyoto on the phone and they were reporting to each other what was going on. So they actually saw the experiment going on

DONVAN: And this was a hundred percent success rate? Every monkey every time?

NICOLELIS: Well we try with 2 monkeys doing that, we published that with two monkeys and they were successful. You know, the 2 monkeys were successful. It’s not 100 percent, but it’s very high. It’s above 85 percent. Yes.

DONVAN: Joe Fins, anything twitching in you and as you see this in terms of questions that comes to you?

FINS: That’s a pretty smart monkey.

NICOLELIS: She likes to walk.

FINS: Which I just think it’s ironic that the journalists were using another brain to brain interface, the telephone.

NICOLELIS: Yes it’s funny.

FINS: And it- and it brings up the issue of what the great Lewis Thomas spoke about. Who wrote the Lives of the Cell, and he spoke about halfway technologies and these are halfway technologies in route to something more facile, more, you know, more usable.

NICOLELIS: I always remind me-he also reminds me of Dr. Clarke’s famous line that when technology is so above us, it looks like magic. Journalist never saw a neuroscience lab before. When they walk into it and they saw this hundreds of neurons flashing and this robot walking in Japan, they looked at they have gone to a 2001 kind of movie.

DONVAN: So what is your next step?

NICOLELIS: Well when we saw that in 2007, we realized finally that that could be done in humans. We are confident that we could use a brain machine interface to restore locomotion in humans. And I got lucky to be in it right moment in the right place in Brazil. Around 2010, I think, in a meeting. Brazil had been awarded the World Cup, soccer World Cup, was a big deal for Brazilians and most of the world.

DONVAN: Didn’t go so well on the field.

NICOLELIS: Well, let’s not talk about soccer. We are science here, we are science. So I was in this room and people wanted to do a demonstration, something that was beyond music and soccer, something that would give a message to the whole world of hope. That was the team and I was sitting in the back room and I said, “What about if we have a paraplegic Brazilian using a brain controlled robotic exoskeleton to deliver the opening kickoff for the world cup and feel the ball when he kicks. And this is an example of one of our patients that was trained to use a non-invasive technique, EEG, to imagine walking. And these signals basically translated into digital commands that code to a robotic exoskeleton that he’s wearing. And not only he can walk with this device, but we have sensors all over the exoskeleton, pressure sensors. When he touches the ground, there’s a pressure wave that is generated and deliver to a vibrating element on his arm. So his arm is used as a transducer for his brain to imagine movement. So we found a combination of the elements by changing the magnitude and timing that generated a phantom sensation. You probably heard about phantom limb sensation. They had phantom limbs. We found a way to give them the feeling that is not the exo that is carrying them, but it is them walking with the exo and it was very realistic. So this was the device that was used in the opening kick off.

[00:20:40] DONVAN: I remember there was a young guy

NICOLELIS: Absolutely, Juliano Pinto, he is part of- he’s paralyzed from T4 from this level down, two thirds of his body is paralyzed.

DONVAN: For him, was this a one time only sort of spectacular moment?

NICOLELIS: Oh no, no. We have been working with all the patients for 24 months now. And the most beautiful part is, now we know because we have done neurological examination on these guys. And there had been chronic spinal cord lesions. They have been in a wheelchair for a decade. Two years later, seven of these patients have recovered sensitivity below the level of the injury in motor control, voluntary motor control of some muscles, below the level of the lesion. So I think plasticity was triggered by this exercise of imagining you’re walking and getting these feedback that is very realistic. So this conjunction of the output to control the device and the feedback that feels like my body is moving, may have triggered axons that were left, nerves have survived the original lesion to- to a start working again.

DONVAN: So far you are showing us the ability to- to- to read information out of the brain directly.

NICOLELIS: Yes, instant feedback back.

DONVAN: And send feedback.

NICOLELIS: Yes and that was happening and the kick was 2014. But since 2011 I had published a book, my book Beyond Boundaries and I had predicted that the next logical step there would be to try to connect brains. And when I published the book, you know, lots of our colleagues said it’s never going to happen. It’s too crazy.

DONVAN: Did you all say that or?

NICOLELIS: No, not them. Not them. They’re on the forefront, you know, some more conservative people were saying, “No, this is not going to happen.” But I had heard that same thing would brain machine interfaces and they told us, “You’re never going to happen.” So the next step was to try to do that. To try to connect brings of animals. I was working mainly with animals in that beginning. That was- we start working this project in 2012. But by 2013, we had the first paper out and this was the communication between two rats. It was just a proof of concept, but I was very keen to see one, if it could be done, if animals would understand simple messages that you’re sending from one to another and what would happen to the brains of these animals when they’re interacting with one another. Because, would they synchronize? Would they work as a whole, as a team? Because I had proposed a concept in that book of building an organic or biological computer. So these are the cartoon of some of these experiments where we’re linking rats and these are different designs of that first-these experiment this is actually a paper published later. But first of all, we needed to see how much plasticity we could get out of adult rats and there’s a video clip showing an intermediate experiment where we wanted to see if we could create a new sense in rats, adult rats.

DONVAN: You mean a sense in addition to the five senses.

NICOLELIS: Yes, in addition to the regular, common senses. This isn’t an animal that learned to touch otherwise invisible light, infrared as most of you know. Mammals can track infrared beams and humans and primates cannot. But we asked the question, “Can we actually get the infrared sensing the head of these animals and get the electrical output that comes from it directly on the touch cortex on the part of the cortex that is representing formation from the face. And can you get these guys to learn to feel that invisible light as if it was some kind of- if it were some kind of tactile sense?” And it turns out that they learned that. In fact, they can learn that in three days. So what these animals are doing is tracking a beam of infrared light not by seeing it, but by touching it and when he gets there, it gets a drop of water as a reward.

DONVAN: They learn amazingly quickly.

[00:24:32] NICOLELIS: Very quickly. If you do the same experiment by putting the output in the visual cortex, they learn in six hours to track that beam of invisible light. So when we saw that, we said Okay, we’re ready for the big one, the big experiment. And that’s was building a direct linkage between two rats. The first one is encoder rat, and the second one is the decoder rat. The encoder rat does the heavy duty. So he gets a visual cue that tells him whether to press left or right. If he does correct, it gets a reward.

NICOLELIS: Well when he gets to light, and that’s the video we are seeing. And you see the left trial, there’s a light that comes out tells the encoder rat, ok, press left. When he makes that decision and press left, we get a snippet of his brain activity and send to the second guy who doesn’t get the correct cue. It doesn’t get any cue. The two lights are on and the question is, can the second guy interpret that and press the correct lever? And in 70 percent of the trials, they do. So this is a right trial where he goes to the right, press the lever. Now we are sending the message to the second rat and the second rat says, okay let me get the food and he decoded the message that is coming directly to its brain and gets the food. What’s the significance of getting 70 percent, not 100 percent. Oh, because there is some noise and we are using, at that time, you’re using just one channel transmission and you’re using a poor channel of communication because we had no idea what would happen. But the interesting thing is that there’s a caveat in this experiment that got us thinking much deeper than we thought in the beginning. The first guy is getting reward when he press, but we decided to create a bonus to the first guy. So if the second gets right, the first guy gets a bonus, extra food. So this guy said OK, I like that bonus. I’m from New York. I work in the financial district. I love my bonus. You know, I’m willing to do all sorts of crazy things for that bonus.

DONVAN: Not like they’re rats or anything.

NICOLELIS: No, not like they’re rats. I didn’t say that.

DONVAN: I didn’t say that.

NICOLELIS: Well, even then, what happened is, the first guy does it but this guy for whatever reason, the second one gets a mistake, doesn’t get correct. What do we notice? That instantaneously, in the next trial, the first guy slows down the movement and makes it- the brain signal to noise higher. Almost like saying, “Can you get to now, idiot? Because I want that extra reward.” And the second rat invariably get it right and it get it right for several trials because he get the idea. So after a few trials, the first guy selects again.

NICOLELIS: He does very quick and his brain to noise goes down, seeing whether this second guy can get it then. And there was the kind of adaptation that we didn’t predict. There was some non-linear adaptation and the second one is that the brain of the second guy, the decoder, the neurons there, not only now respond to body parts of the animal, but also to the touches of the body parts of the first. So two bodies represented in one brain. So that was unpredicted. We had no idea about that.

DONVAN: All right well. And in all of these cases the animals have stuff sticking through their skulls.

NICOLELIS: Tiny stuff yeah.

DONVAN: Ok, you’re more merciful but you’ve got to go inside.

NICOLELIS: About two and a half millimeters. OK. Right.

DONVAN: The reason I’m bringing that up, I want to move down to your two colleagues now, from Washington State Chantel and Andrea. And first of all, you two worked together in the same lab but you know each other pretty well, right?

ANDREA STOCCO, NEUROSCIENTIST: Yeah, we met a few times.

CHANTEL PRAT, NEUROSCIENTIST: We met here in New York, actually, nine years ago.

DONVAN: How long have you been married?

PRAT: Seven.

DONVAN: So you work all day in the lab and you see each other in the house the rest of the time.

STOCCO: Yeah we keep working.

PRAT: And we work all night at the house sometimes.

DONVAN: So I’m curious. Very briefly from each of you, just a little biographically how you got into the field in the first place.

PRAT: Sure. Well one thing I’ll say about how I met Andrea, this might surprise you all, but we don’t get out much. Scientists so, it’s very convenient when you have a tall dark and handsome Italian man working down the hall from you at Carnegie Mellon and the rest is history, as it were. I actually started premed at the- UC San Diego and I was really deep into my accelerated premed classes and I had to take one social science class and one social science requirement left before I was ready to go on to med school. And I took an intro psych class, Intro to Psychology. And I was exposed to, what I now know, an inaccurate version of Phineas Gage story. This man who had a railroad spike blown through his frontal lobe and that sort of psych 101 level story of this is that he changed. This brain injury changed him and changed his personality and it occurred to me that this organ is us- this tangle of neurons in our- in our heads is us. And that was it for me, it was over. I did not want to go to med school. I wanted to be a neuroscientist. I majored in psychology and I started working in the Child Development Lab and there I fell in love with the idea of individual differences. So we were studying the brains of 6 month old, 9 month old, 12 month old children as they learn language and looking at how the brain changes across these levels. But I was struck by how different the 12 month olds were from one another and the nine month olds were from one to another. And most of what we do is kind of comparing groups of people but from that moment, it was very clear to me that these kids were different within, you know, within ages and that their brains were different.

[00:30:30] DONVAN: You studied one at a time. One at a time.

PRAT: Yeah, individual differences is really what I’m passionate about.

DONVAN: So what about you, Andrea?

STOCCO: So I go out into the field of neuroscience, actually I took the scenic route through it. I actually started doing some marketing as an undergraduate and I didn’t like it. So I decided to take a computer science class. And at the time, I didn’t even own a computer. However, I found it was very good, it was really fun for me and it was a good. So I learned how to program a computer and eventually decided that my undergrad project was going to be an artificial intelligence. And midway through, I discovered there was an entire field in artificial intelligence, which is called machine learning, programming computers to be smart and intelligent and flexible like we are. And I discovered that a lot of this research comes from taking inspiration from how the brain works and the idea that they could program a machine and create a tiny working version of the brain on my laptop or desktop at that time. I thought it was such a bizarre thing that could be something that could be like perceiving the world and reasoning about the world inside the machine. And this idea kind of never left me. What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to be thinking? And so I decided that I needed to get into that and decided to eventually graduate, get a  Ph.D. and then moved to Carnegie Mellon. And then at Carnegie Mellon, I found these beautiful smart scientist who was walking down the hall from me and at this point there was no reason to ever leave the field, right?

DONVAN: So you’re in this lab now. Why don’t you tell us what- first of all, I made that distinction with Miguel’s work where he’s putting things through the skull. You you don’t- you work from the outside. You do not cross the skin barrier.

PRAT: Right. So we work with healthy humans and for whatever reason they don’t let us stick things into their brains so we’ve got to do things safely and not invasively and-and it’s great actually. It turns out that there’s quite a lot that you can do.

DONVAN: So tell us your work that we’re going to be talking about. We’re going to show a video in a little bit, but talk to us about it first and then we’ll look at the video and you can join in, Andrea, on this.

PRAT: So I like to say that I was the puppet master in the first non-invasive human brain to brain interface. And then this- in this demo that you’re going to see, what we actually did was link two of our colleagues, Rajesh Rao, who is across campus at the University of Washington in computer science, and Andrea Stocco, my husband, was the first receiver of this non-invasive human brain to brain. And what we did essentially was use a similar technology to what Miguel has been talking about, human brain computer interface, to detect in the sender, the intention to move his hand. So Dr. Rao was across campus in computer science and he was actually watching a video game. But he didn’t have any way of interacting with the video game. So he had no joystick. He just had a video game in which airplanes or missiles fly by. And what Dr. Rao needed to do, so you can see Dr. Rao on the left, were recording his EEG. What he needed to do is think about moving his hand. He couldn’t move his hand at all. He needed to just think about moving his hand or press a button. That’s the EEG lighting up there and he’s sitting in a very comfortable chair getting ready. And there is Andrea and like a good wife, I’m getting ready to stimulate his brain. You can see his hand is over the joystick essentially. And what I’m doing is I’m- I’m positioning a magnetic coil that has the property of inducing a focal electrical current in the brain. I’m positioning it right over his hand area. So when the computer detected that Dr. Rao wanted to hit the button when a missile was flying over, as you can see there, it would travel across the Internet and it would turn on our TS machine which would then cause Andrea’s hand to move. So essentially Andrea was the world’s first human WiMote in this experiment.

DONVAN: That was here Neil Armstrong moment.

PRAT: Yeah. And it was great it was-it was very exciting to be there. I think Dr. Rao got a little overexcited.

PRAT: He was shooting everything that flies, even if was a plane.

DONVAN: Let’s run the video again because what we’re looking for then, Andrea, is to see your, I mean it’s subtle, but we’re looking for your fingers to move.

STOCCO: Yeah, there is a-there is a moment, it basically passes in just a millisecond, but there is a moment where I actually received the stimulation and my hand moves. It’s a subtle impulse that passes through my brain. In fact, this is like probably the second or the third day that we did. But in the first time, I didn’t even realize that my hand had moved. We can reach a level of control that is quite subtle. Reach only-

[00:35:09] PRAT: So there it is, right there.

DONVAN: OK. So tell us what you were feeling at that- and again-just to be clear, there’s that round doughnut shaped metal object above your head that’s- that’s beaming in a magnetic signal.

STOCCO: That’s correct.

DONVAN: Were these triggered by a computer which is triggered by the signals from Dr. Rao’s brain.

STOCCO: That’s correct. This is actually the very first time this happened this- I still remember this was August in 2013. The first time we actually made it work. I was there and actually I was just waiting for something to happen because humans tend to be a little bit in the way of the experiments and we want to make sure that everything is working without humans knowing what’s going on. I would kind of like in an isolated chamber. I had no idea what was going on. Everything was behind me. The experiment is well behind me. I had noise cancellation earphones.  So I couldn’t even hear the tiny clicks that this machine makes.

PRAT: That was a detail I left out. He couldn’t see or hear the game.

STOCCO: This way they were sure that when I was moving my hand that was moving because the system had controlled by him. We actually know now that the impulse is so much faster than any involuntary movement that could have made. Anyway, I was there and I remember wondering all the time, “When is it going to happen? I’m not going to feel anything. Is it  going to work? Is it ever going to work?” And I remember very clear at some point, I didn’t realize that I move my hand, but I had the idea that people were moving around and I  could hear Chantel’s laugh.

DONVAN: So you could what?

STOCCO: Chantel’s laugh. Yeah. And I realize it must have worked.

PRAT: That was my youtube fame. We have like a million hits on YouTube and it’s just cackling in the background while they, while they do this experiment.

DONVAN: Actually, it would have been cooler if what you heard in your head was Dr. Rao’s voice, like in a movie saying, “Shoot the plane.” Shoot the plane. Cause that’s what-you know, when this is carried to fruition, I’m sure this is going to be happening. So what’s your next experiment?

STOCCO: Our next experiment, we have actually a bunch of experiments we’re working on at the same time. There’s one thing that I have to make clear, though, that different from what Miguel is doing with rats, the capabilities to transmitting information non-invasively are much more limited. Our machines are safe, we don’t need to open up the skull. But what we can exactly do is pretty limited and we’re still learning how to develop these machines, develop better technologies. And Seung-Schik here is actually working actively to improve these technologies. One order of magnitude possibly in the future. And we’re learning how to control exactly how we control impulses. How we get the impulses into the brain so that we reproduce the exact patterns of activity that we want the brain to be into.

DONVAN: Do you need- do you need everybody’s brains to be basically mappable exactly the same way for that to work?

STOCCO: No. And this is actually a really interesting question and this is why Chantel’s work is so important, because brains are different from each other. And this is actually one of the biggest problems that we face. We need to be accurate in what we stimulate and how precisely we do that.

DONVAN: You were telling me a story about you and your daughter.

PRAT: Yes. So the second experiment. So a lot of people asked Andrea, “What was it like? What do you feel?” And as he’s alluded,  he didn’t- you don’t- he did this transmission was from an intention to move the hand to something like a reflex. So it’s not that Andrea felt the urge to move his hand. It just-we just twitched it directly through the brain. And in the second experiment, we wanted to transmit conscious information. So the second experiment, the receiver actually saw a flash of light and used that to make a decision. It was a really fun experiment, because essentially what happened was, we turned our family road trip game into a brain to brain experiment. So hopefully some of you in the audience have played something like 20 questions or guess what animal I’m thinking about. And in this experiment, I was actually paired with my 21 year old daughter as we were one of the teams here.

PRAT: And you can see one of our friends and subjects receiving information in this experiment. So what we did was the sender in this experiment selected an object from a set of possible objects and then the receiver asked a question, is it living or nonliving? Is it you know large or small? Is it edible? They asked-there were options on the screen. And then what our- our sender did was looked at an item on- either yes or no on the video screen and the computer could detect whether they were looking at yes and no using information from the visual cortex. If the answer was yes, the receiver saw a flash of light and that let them answer the question and go through a series of questions until they could figure out which object on the array people were thinking of.

STOCCO: This is actually a car that we are using that is much more focal and its position on the back of the- the part of the brain that usually interpret signals from the eyes. In this case, we’re actually bypassing the eyes all together and injecting a signal straight into this part of the brain. And the brain interprets some things outside of the world. A light flash. Some people see lines hanging, hovering over in the visual field. And it’s enough to transmit this information.

[00:40:16] DONVAN: Where to a sort of late journalists, like myself, or maybe just a member of the audience, where- where there’s a sense of letdown about your work doing is in fact we do want to hear that your work is having the voice in the brain saying, shoot the plane. But what you’re actually doing with the stage you’re at, is more like you’re- you’re pushing buttons, you’re firing triggers, is that correct? But- but- but you’re also saying that- that’s a huge deal. And so what is the case that it’s a huge deal?

PRAT: Well in this- first of all in the second experiment, and then subsequent experiments, people are learning to interpret. They see a light. So it’s not just a button, it’s a conscious experiment. And what we’ve seen is, like Miguel’s experiment where the rats learn and they’re sort of dynamic, humans were- they’re learning to see something that’s not in front of them and they’re learning to see by stimulating the brain directly. And so I think that in and of itself is really interesting.

DONVAN: Gigantically. So did you have another thing to say, Andrea?

STOCCO: Oh, just a brief thing. There’s this this kind of idea that I would like to dispel a little bit. People imagine brain to brain communication as the X-men version of telepathy where you hear this tiny voice in your head that is somebody else’s thoughts. This is questionable, because in the first place if your thoughts were actually projected to me and tells me to my brain, my brain would have no way of knowing that they’re yours. They will think that they are my own brain. But more deeply, our thoughts are not really this internal voice. We can’t perceive some of them as an internal voice, but there are thoughts that this kind of changes in what we perceive and feel and what we imagine. And we know from neuroscience that we oscillate between different states, focusing on a task and then wandering out, for instance, is something that we do spontaneously. So whatever shape, whatever the knowledge of what it-what brain to brain communication is probably going to be very different in many ways much more interesting than this idea we can listen somebody’s tape recording in the head.

DONVAN: Seung-Schik, you also are non-invasive. You use focused ultrasound. but the- the thing that you’re, right now, most famous for is human to animal brain connection. Tell us your work. First how did you get into the brain business?

YOO: Yes. So the first time that I went through business of brain it was back in the mid 90s and back then, there’s a new technology that came out that is supposed to translate how our brain works. It is called functional magnetic resonance imaging in short, fMRI. So back then, the problem that we had was, in order to analyze the data it took about minutes to hours typically. So as a project, what I did was I made it run faster. How fast? Instead of minutes and hours, seconds. That’s how fast we made it. So well then after that, we came out- we found there a lot of other applications that you can spoon out of it. So for instance, if you have ability to analyze someone’s brain function in real time, what would you do? One of the things that we did was to use someone’s brain activity in real time and use that as a feedback information. So this is just an analogy. If you want to improve your golf, meaning if there is any golf for you here, you want to videotape your golf swing and probably use that information to improve your golf swing. It’s the same analogy. You can probably use the- how your brain function- brain functions in real time and use that information to gain a volitional control of your brain thoughts . Isn’t it kind of counterintuitive in a way? Isn’t- your brain is what you are doing, right? The way I speak is what my brain is telling me to do. But some cases, additional help is needed. But anyway, so we use that technology to improve attention level from some of the subjects, as well as we devise the method and strategy to help the-we have a strategy for the patient who is recovering from a stroke. That’s one of the things. But then, I start to realize that I really wanted to do more than just the mapping the brain function. Deep inside me was telling me you should do something more than just mapping the brain function.

Then I had a really lucky break in a moment, in a way. About nine years ago, I had an opportunity to work with the scientist in the same division that has a really good expertise in developing focus ultrasound technology. So what it is is we can deliver acoustic energy, that is an ultrasound frequencies, which is you can hear the ultrasound, right? It’s typically more than twenty thousand hertz. You cannot hear them. But you can give those energy acoustic waves that are being focused across the skull and give it to a very small area of the brain. How small it would be? It’s typically elongated rice grain size up to about a kidney bean’s size. That’s how small it can be. So we were able to demonstrate by giving the pulse acoustic wave into the brain tissue and can modulate, which means you can either stimulate or suppress the residual brain function through the animal model. So come to think about it, so if you have ability to stimulate the brain, it means that- usually what we do is we let the computer control it. So what it means is you actually have a computer to brain interface, relative as to brain computer interface that is supposed to analyze your brain function and give it to- and related to the computer to do something else, like a robotic control or playing games and stuff. Well by having that ability, we were able to first demonstrate what about having human thoughts to control the animal brain function. So we used EEG technology to translate- translate the human thought process to stimulate the brain area of the rat that are responsible for twitching the rat tail.

[00:46:55] YOO: So that’s the one of the first demonstration that we did. And after that, as the video will show you, we divided the experiment into two different sections: senders and receivers and sender typically sit in front of a computer screen and the person just look at the target that appears left or right on the computer screen by looking at it. And the sender engages a imagination of moving, clenching either left or the right hand depending on where the target appears on the screen. And then EEG picks up the changes in EEG signals and determines which of the Left or Right comment that the sender is generating and upon detecting that signal, then we transmit that information through the Internet to another computer that are located about 15 miles away and that computer actuate this focused ultrasound machine that stimulate either left or right hemisphere of the motor area. Sensory area of the person who is receiving the information. So typical sensation that receivers receive is a little tingling sensation that actually happened either right or left hand. So upon having this sensation, the receiver let others know by clenching their-his in this case his, right or left hand. So what actually happened was, we were able to transmit at least two degrees of freedom of thought processes and then reclassified it, and it was able to transmit to the other person. And how fast we can do it? We were able to transmit about eight to nine commands, different commands in about one minute. So it’s not really blazingly fast, but you know by basically the brain thought process and communication. It says- it’s pretty good feature that we had.

DONVAN: Is- is the actual content of the receivers.  Does the receiver need to be thinking about motion in order to stimulate-could the motion or could you set it up so that the receiver is thinking about a cheese sandwich and that stimulates motion? Have you programmed things that way?

YOO: Right. So this is this- is really intriguing question. So the content of the information that you can transmit is still very limited. It’s very rudimentary. So it’s either like either in moving, imagining or moving your left or right hand that much. And the person who receives it is a tingling sensation that actually happened either right or left hand. That’s about it. So the amount of the content of the information that you receive is still limited.

DONVAN: Joe, of everything you’ve heard so far, what’s what’s leaping out at you as either fascinating or let’s be wary or let’s not oversell?

[00:50:00] FINS: Well I think- I think a little bit of all of that I think. I think that the notion of the rats learning from each other. You know, it has implications for education. You know, a teacher trying to educate a student who is not getting it. Is there a way of amplifying the signal. And in real time in a classroom. So this is not just in a laboratory. It may have applications in places we don’t generally think about it. On a more sort of nefarious side of things, I mean you know the work that you guys did, spectacular work ,and I just want to say this is a community of scientists who could have evolved generationally and amplified each other’s work and complement each other’s work. We talk about science and we talk about science being competitive, but it’s also a collaboration. It is a community. I think that’s an important lesson for young people who are watching. You get more done by collaborating than competing with each other. But what I think it’s really really kind of frightening and scary and exciting at the same time is that when you were pressing that button, you did not know you were pressing that button. You had-we talked about volitional control. This technology can improve volitional control, but it also can be done without volition. And that brings up the issue of being controlled by some other agency, by some other entity.

NICOLELIS: And that often happens, that happens often.

FINS: Happens all the time, right? And you are living in the media capital of the world

NICOLELIS: Watch TV.

FINS: That’s right. But I think it’s right. And you know, the propaganda is the ultimate kind of mind control. So it’s not unique to neuroscience. But- but I think it does raise the question of the proximity of the intervention and it’s happening in your head and let’s say you know we’ve got a little more sophisticated than the technology will certainly evolve. And you have a neurological reason to have such a device, maybe to help improve your learning after a stroke. And you do something, you had somebody, you know. Was it you? Or was it the device? and how do we determine culpability and responsibility? -And then and then- and then the issue of embodiment, you know. Is this you or the machine? Is it a tool that, you know, like a blind person who has a cane who’s able to but people who have- who have canes begin to feel that the cane is part of themselves, this embodiment. Or is it- does it change your sense of what’s normal and what’s what’s normative? So I think that this is very exciting and work, but I think we also have to think about science and society and these broader considerations. And this seems very primitive right now, but it’s going to gallop along and as usual, we deal with the consequences after we’ve done the science.

DONVAN: Miguel, what is your response that?  I mean first of all it does seem primitive. But can it move fast? And does it-the questions that Joe are raising, does it matter?

NICOLELIS: Well very, very good questions that I have thought since the beginning. In fact, later maybe I can show a different variation of these things in monkeys that go to exactly to your point. Because I have three concerns about these and it goes into your life. One is actually what you said. If one day someone may want to use this technology to make someone makes- perform a behavior that is not actual voluntary intention of the person. That’s of course a concern that we all have. The other that I find this is the central concern in neuroscience, in my humble opinion right now, is the possibility of the weaponization of the brain.

DONVAN: It’s like a drone

NICOLELIS: Yes, exactly. Creating weapons that are based on these concepts of brain machine interfaces or brain to brain. Because I’m against it. I don’t want to see that happening. And I think the neuroscience community has to be aware of these issues and start debating them because it’s very easy to get enumerated by the technology and not thinking about it. And- but the other thing I wanted to just point out is the fact that yes, it can get sophisticated very quickly. It can.

DONVAN: Does everybody agree with that?

NICOLELIS: I’m talking about from the point of view of neuroscience from inside the brain. Not necessarily invasive. In animals you can demonstrate much more sophisticated mental collaboration. That’s what I-I had a feature that I brought where 3 monkeys learned to mentally collaborate.

DONVAN: If you can get three animals collaborating, could you get 100 collaborating?

NICOLELIS: Yeah, sure that’s the point. I actually called this construct an organic computer. You had three monkeys that don’t know that they are alive. They don’t know the existence of their companions. And they have to move a virtual arm in 3-D continuously.  Several bits of information per second. But one monkey mentally, without moving his own body, only controls the X and Y dimensions of the movement. The first monkey controls X and Y mentally. The second monkey controls Y and Z and the third one X and Z. So for that arm to move in 3D, you need at least two monkeys to perfectly synchronize their brains. And there’s a computer that is getting his recordings from the three brains to make these behave like an entity, a single entity. And this is the setup. Xo you have three monkeys. Each one is controlling two dimensions of this three dimensional movement and you need to get them synchronized. So what you see here now, the color circles represent the output of each one of the monkeys brains to the output. The black dot is the linear combination of these three animals brains done by a computer and they, to get a reward, they have to put a black board inside that big target.

[00:55:28] DONVAN: And they’re seeing the black- they’re seeing the target.

NICOLELIS: They’re seeing just the target. And did you mention that they control mentally. Well, these animals just stopped moving. They synchronize their brains at a 10 millisecond resolution. So the outcome of this is that from 300 neurons in each animal, we created a 900 neuron brain that is actually doing the task. And the monkeys are getting a reward in juice and they get better, better, better. To a point where you may see at a point, a monkey gets a little nap. The blue guy win a nap a moment to go. The two other guys, without even knowing that there are other monkeys in the room, they take the slack. They increase the synchrony  of their brains because they want that juice.

DONVAN: So what do you see with the idea of networking, dozens and dozens of- you’re going to need a lot of juice. I got a lot of orange juice.

NICOLELIS: Well you can see in the next video of what I envision for the future, because it’s already happening in our lab in Brazil in Sao Paulo, where we did the World Cup and we are still working on those patients. The beginning of training using non-invasive EEG to control takes several weeks. The patients, you know, they don’t have the concept of walking anymore. And we’ve noticed that that was the most difficult part of their training. So what do we did here was to pair using the same brain that concept that you saw in monkeys. We pair a paraplegic patient with a physical therapist and we are merging there EEG activity, leniently, but giving a higher weight to the normal brain of the physical therapist. So our theory here is that we may enhance the speed. We may increase the speed of training, because these paraplegic guy is getting correct feedback since the beginning, is getting it right. But he’s only contributed 10 percent while the physical therapy is contributing 90 percent. And as time goes by, we are increasing the weight of the paraplegic and reducing the weight of the physical therapist and we are just measuring this now. We don’t know the answer.

DONVAN: Oh I was going to ask with what with what result?

NICOLELIS: Yeah well our expectation is that we are going to reduce the time that it takes for a paraplegic patient to regain the concept of having legs and be able to control them mentally so they can move to the exoskeleton faster.

FINS: So I think that’s brilliant. I mean that’s wonderful, not only because it’s great science, but because it also reflects one of the slogans of the disability community is there’s nothing about us without us. Yeah and you’ve included these people in the process. And again, that’s educational and it’s also collaborative, because I’m sure there’s other kinds of communication about their needs and their desires and their problems and the challenges they’re facing. So I think that’s a great, you know, merge of what we need as individuals, as human beings, our differences, our personalities, our disabilities plus how to bring the science together. It’s a great synthesis.

STOCCO: They tell us is that most of physical rehabilitation, classical one, is passive. You’re there and a physical therapist is trying to move your leg and you’re just there, receiving that. In this kind of thing, you were a protagonist. But I think actually this is like a key point. I think that all of us have been given slack because people believe that some of our research is just scientists playing fancy video games using each other as controllers. Or having a rat being a controller. It is not. So we start and we need to start small and sometimes we play around with snails that are intentionally,  because they’re simple to control. But what we see is actually ways in which we can possibly help people recover function faster than now and this- and this is something that needs to be kept in mind. As Miguel was saying.

FINS: No pun intended.

STOCCO: And as Miguel was saying, most of the neuro rehabilitation is based on techniques that are centuries old. But essentially, it means that when you have a problem, you need to go back to square one and learn how to move like a child. But imagine that we can record your brain activity, keep it on a hard drive. And then when you have a stroke, we can use the signals to train your brain backwards.

PRAT: So that’s not what I was going to say. Good job. Fail. I was actually going to say something that everybody said but not specifically is that a lot of people are worried that someone else is going to control your brain. But a lot of what we’re hearing is actually people learning how to control their own brains better and I think that’s actually really exciting because whether you believe it or not, I believe that your brain is you and is controlling you anyway. So becoming explicitly aware and learning about your own brain function and learning to control your brain, I think is important and exciting and has a lot of implications.

[01:00:16] YOO: That’s actually a very interesting- I’d like to bring up the following issue as well. I really get a lot of questions about well Seung-Schik, you have this great tool. So what are you going to do with it?  I usually bring up all the good things that we like to do. For instance, I want to go out and modulate the brain area that is associated with substance abuse or psychiatric diseases and so on. If someone has a memory problem, I really want to help them out by, for instance, activating or invigorating the function of the hippocampus and so on. But then the person ask me the following question I usually have to stop and think about it. What if, if you flip that around toward the bad one for instance if you intended to modulate the, for instance, nucleus accumbens, small little brain area that is associated with pleasure. Exactly. And it is also associated with addiction substance, substance abuse. What if you start to start it instead of curing it. That’s another scary thing. What if you start to improve- instead of improving the memory, if you start to modulate and change the memory? What’s going to happen? That’s always the question that kind of bothers my mind and lingers over.

DONVAN: Miguel you were gonna say something I think.

NICOLELIS: No, I think what’s also important, given the points you raised, that we emphasize that I don’t think we will ever be able to broadcast from one brain to another. Things we consider the essence of the human condition. Because these things are not trivial. They are emergent properties of signals, huge signals, you know. And we don’t even know how to record those signals, let alone broadcast them and make someone else interpret that thing so that- the brain is not a digital computer. It’s not a machine that you can get a program out and replicate in another machine. There is much more into the brain and I actually think that there are analog components that make us human. You know, we love to create analogies. metaphors to expect things. to predict things. and these things are not reducible to the kind of algorithms, machine learning algorithms that we all use. So that fear. I think we can calm down. We are not going to be broadcasting your dreams to my head not my soccer preferences to his Italian head. Which would be very dangerous- very dangerous, you know.

DONVAN: Joe, do you agree with that? That the- the unlikelihood of that sort of level?

FINS: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a risk of science fiction, you know, getting everybody petrified. So we don’t have any kind of advance in the hyperbole you know is something we want to be careful about because then legitimate news get undermined because people are petrified and concerned. But I do think that we have to have a regulatory structure that- that doesn’t squelch the creativity of these great scientists, but at the same time makes sure there are issues of informed consent and institutional review boards know what they’re regulating, that the FDA is responsible and their oversight for the development of new devices. I mean there are issues besides

DONVAN: That would that be true with any- virtually any kind of research. I’m wondering if you are talking about special sets of concerns here. For example, one I’ve read quite a bit about in relation to this would be privacy. If there is if there’s communication between brands.

FINS: Well I mean, Dick Cheney for example, when he had his implantable defibrillator, he turned off the wireless function for fear that he’d be defibrillated and hacked. I mean you, know so. So in red states and blue states perhaps. So I think there, you know, there’s some sort of- but I think one of the differences, and this is this I think a problem with the FDA, is that it’s really focused on drugs and the devices are so much more heterogeneous and more complicated. And there’s there’s so much innovation, you know, a drug is a drug there are differences, or minor differences and they those minor differences make a big difference. But devices are sometimes so ingenerous. So the regulatory structure seems to lag behind the innovation and sometimes there’s premature closure and there’s a real problem we talk about all these wonderful possibilities. They talk about the valley of death. You know you have proof of principle and you can’t get market support, financial support to bring it to the bedside. And that’s been something that the Brain Initiative, the Obama Brain Initiative had a meeting last year. Many of us were talking about how do you overcome that valley of death? So innovation gets to the bedside eventually.

DONVAN: Do you all feel under pressure to be able to frame your work as ultimately having practical value and being- putting in the framework of innovation? As opposed to the fact that you’re actually just discovering. If you like discovery for its own sake, you’re doing some pretty darn interesting discovery for its own sake. You’re all nodding like I pushed a button in your brain. I mean do you feel that if we weren’t putting these questions to you about practical applications, would you be thinking about them that much?

[[1:05:25] STOCCO: There’s this divide between the reasons that motivate deep inside us which sometimes are not clear to us why we were still studying the mind. Mostly because I felt it was the most fascinating thing and I would have sold a kidney to keep studying brains for the rest of my life.

DONVAN: And indeed, he sold his brain to keep studying kidneys.

STOCCO: That would have been a problem. On the hand, we are very aware that- Chantel and I talk about it a lot, that as scientists, we are so privileged with what we consider the most beautiful job in the world.

DONVAN: Why?

STOCCO: Well, because it’s exciting every day. It’s like, I get my rush of dopamine every day by going into the lab and see what my students do.

PRAT: We’re pursuing the truth. And you get to be the first person in the world to know something and it’s.

NICOLELIS: I didn’t even think it’s that. I think the beautiful part of it is that we are paid to be kids forever.

STOCCO: That is actually the truth.

NICOLELIS: We are paid to touch things that normal people would say no this is not an adult kind of thing. You know you are going there for the passion of discovery.

DONVAN: You really feel that way?

STOCCO: You never get bored. Yeah I once told my sister that for me is like being 8 years old and being giving me an infinite room full of Lego’s. That’s actually the feeling that I have every morning when I get to the lab and it’s beautiful. On the other hand, there are people generally you know pay taxes and do donations to maintain, keeps me going. So anything-it goes both ways. Of course, I would do it by myself in my garage if they ended my job. But since there are these opportunities. I think it’s more it right

DONVAN: But for you, you would have to be doing this work. In other words, you could be studying the kidney and there are probably discoveries to be made about the kidney but you’re not interested in the kidney.

STOCCO: I’m not just interested in the kidney the kidney.

DONVAN: So it’s that thing it’s, Chantel said, this is who we are. The brain.

STOCCO: I mean at least- I’m sure that there are people that are exactly as fascinated with the brain as they are about the kidneys.

DONVAN: And I hope there are people studying the kidney.

NICOLELIS: And the liver too.

DONVAN: We have a lot of questions coming in from audience members that are reaching me via iPad and some are from Twitter and some are coming through YouTube. One question I like: How long do you think it will be before we can download knowledge directly into our brains? I guess it depends what you mean by knowledge but.

NICOLELIS: Never.

DONVAN: You’re saying never. Why?

NICOLELIS: Because knowledge is a transfer of information that only the brain can produce. And we have no idea how to reproduce the nonlinear emergent properties in the brain. So we were never going to sit in a room with a TMS machine and learn French. If you’re not a native speaker.

PRAT: But you can rewire-I mean you can make-like your rats are learning to do things.

NICOLELIS: No, they’re learning things

PRAT: And when they learn it, it changes their brain, but it’s not-

NICOLELIS: If I understood the question, the question is can the Britannica Encyclopedia and put these down in my head. I don’t think that ever will happen.

STOCCO: I disagree, not because I believe that this is an area that we can envision easily, but because of the information and knowledge varies some degree. Yes something very simple like your visual information is something that we can control.

DONVAN: And I was- the question or- doesn’t specify, but you had said before you-maybe if you could download your way of knowing how to walk and then later in life after a stroke you needed again, I suppose you could call that knowledge. It’s not book knowledge. It’s not poetry.

STOCCO: It’s from a knowledge yeah.

YOO: So never say never.

NICOLELIS: I don’t think so.

YOO: So yeah I totally agree that downloading an entire memory, like what we see in the movie, may not be that powerful but if you make a very, very simplified version out of it, I think you will be able to.

FINS: But certainly not wisdom.

NICOLELIS: But you know, we should give credit to a guy named Arthur Clarke who, back in the 70s, wrote a book, a final book of the trilogy, 3001. And the book starts with something called the brain cap.  And people are learning knowledge about the universe, languages, and everything by hooking a brain cap to someone that is very wise, broadcasting to someone that is not so wise. And Arthur Clarke wrote a space science fiction novel in which half the book is about his brain caps. So it’s very interesting to see that way back, you know, science fiction writers of that magnitude in one of the greatest, was using the brain as a frontier.

[1:10:10] FINS: He also brought us how.

DONVAN: Is there any fear of brain function alteration from focused us, mag- ultrasound. I think is what it means. Focused ultrasound or magnetic stimulation in your subjects. Is there any fear of brain function alteration, in other words I think, can these experiments hurt your subjects?

YOO: So functional alteration, I think it’s a little off for me- for me, but if I wanted to add a little bit I never-I mean, it’s very difficult question. It’s a good question though. I think there is a possibility. So it really depends how you might use them wisely.

PRAT: So yeah again, it’s a level thing. So every single experience changes your brain. So clearly, if we stimulate a part of your brain, it changes your brain. The question is how significant is that one single simulation in terms of every other microsecond of your brain and transcranial magnetic stimulation is a tool that is FDA approved and is used in clinical situations such as to treat depression and so forth and so on. And again, depending on the way it’s used, not the way we use it but you can create these temporary down regulations of parts of the brain that sometimes again helps when that part of the brain is getting in the way of your everyday functioning. We’re very careful also, to the extent that we know how long lasting these effects are, we’re very careful. We deliver one simulation approximately every 20 seconds which makes our experiments really slow. It’s a good thing they’re playing a game in which you can change.

NICOLELIS: Did he change?

STOCCO: Yeah of course.

NICOLELIS: Did he change after you zapped him?

PRAT: Yeah, yeah.

Yeah. I’m still waiting for funding from NIH for that.

YOO: Very simply put, we believe it will change it but we haven’t gone that far yet.

FINS: Well and deep brain stimulation which, has been used you know, investigation-for therapeutics for Parkinson’s disease. People have had improved learning as well as motor improvement for the treatment of OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder, and it actually dampens out those symptoms. And there are some real pioneering work for depression and I would just add, one of the things that’s really interesting is that there are different places in the brain that you can target that have variable effects on depression. Which gets to the individual differences. The variability and also the fact that these are these circuits are immensely complicated. So the one advantage of the DBS, or getting directly into the brain notwithstanding all the risk benefit issues, is that you can target something whereas transcranial, or external stimulation, is more- it is a bigger, bigger window of activation and maybe more superficial.

DONVAN: We’ve made this distinction between the work that you’re doing with where you’re actually putting electrodes probes into the brain and yours. All three of you are doing onset. You know, it’s almost, it’s almost a stereotype cliche of the crazy guy saying they put a chip in my brain but

NICOLELIS: Oh it will happen. We have already 30,000 people more,  80,000 people who chips into Cochlear, which is pretty close.  

FINS: Over a hundred thousand this year.

DONVAN: But in the context of what we’re talking about or are we in that context already.

NICOLELIS: Can I just very quickly story. When I was in medical school, the first pacemakers, heart pacemakers, got to Brazil in the 70s late 70s. It was a big thing and required open heart surgery at that time to put one of those things and my professor cardio cardiothoracic surgery went to a guy on Friday and the guy didn’t want to do it and he was about you know to have a serious condition at that point. He had a very bad arrhythmia.  And the guy said no it’s too big I don’t want to put my heart and my professor said, “Do you want to watch the soccer game on Sunday? It’s the end of the championship.” He said, “Oh absolutely I put money on it.” He said, “let’s put this pacemaker on your heart.” And he got it. He lived years. I don’t know how long, I didn’t follow him. But now, a pacemaker heart pacemaker, is the size of a fingernail. Really. You’ll make it through an artery. You’ll deposit it in here. I don’t know how many people, but it’s close to millions probably. You don’t know that the guy had a heart pacemaker. It’s extremely tiny. Very safe. And it has saved millions of lives. So as technology evolved, and as we know more about the brain. I have no doubt that in decades for different conditions of course epilepsy, Parkinson’s, other things we will have the tiny implants that we don’t even know that the patient has and it’s going to be all wireless. There’s nothing coming out of the head. It’s going to be like the heart.

[1:15:01] STOCCO: And right now the distinction between invasive technologies like what Miguel is doing, and non-invasive technologies like what we use, is very obvious that technologies look different, they feel different, they’re applied to different parts of the brain. But you can envision all the things that go in between. Even with that most obvious and safe and now consumer distributed non invasive technology which is EEG, you can imagine just tiny things that will go on the skin and will give you a better signal than what we can get now. You can image things that go inside your skull and could be implanted then you could actually just reach inside and will be painless. A we could go- and there are technologies that go between the skull and the brain. They don’t quite touch the brain, they don’t hurt the brain, but that you stimulating or record brain activity with the level of precision that is unimaginable until a few years back.

DONVAN: Joe does that change the calculus at all in terms of ethical questions or legal questions?

FINS: I think one of the- one of the ongoing issues right now for some of the deep brain stimulation trials are people who were implanted that had good effect and companies go out of business. And they’re still implanted and they want to continue to receive the intervention for the stimulation. And so I think we have to really think broadly about our ongoing obligation to these folks. The other thing that’s been happening with deep brain stimulation, despite all this very promising work. It’s been a lot of trials have been considered failures. And they’ve been considered failures, because the drug- the device companies only follow people for a certain amount of time or they set arbitrary limits about what constitutes success. So 20 percent of people have to have an effect within a certain period of time. But then there are people who have a positive effect after the trial is over. And what about the 10 or 12 percent that have an effect. We should be learning from our successes and not deeming our failures failures because it really truncates the science. And I just wrote a piece in neurosurgery about, about using the information that we learned from trials to iterate and once you’re implanted, we should be using the opportunity to try to maximize the effectiveness because the economic investment is there,, the burden on the patient is there and the market forces determine what success is. But this Salin tried to really drive the discovery and I think that’s a really important issue to put all this into the real world context.

DONVAN: This is a great homestretch question. The director of the documentary film Mastermind #brain #tech, who’s here in the audience tonight. Thanks for joining us wherever you are. The question is what are your goals for brain to brain communication in the next five years? Why don’t you each just take a minute. We’ll go down the line. Let’s come this way and we’ll start with you Seung-Schik.

YOO: All right so I really love that question. I’d like to ask the audience. You’re going to see my name on the website so you can always email me. I’d like to ask you the following question. So this is what I can do. It’s probably this is something we can do. You can send two information either left or right up and down. Yes or no kind of question. This is something that is really feasible even right now. And let’s assume-the examples that I showed you is one direction. There was a sender there was a receiver, but we can make it bi-directional so I can send you the information, you can send that information to me. Other dimension. Let’s make it one to many and many to one. Let’s add another dimension here- many to many. Let’s- that’s the other dimension. So with those with framework, what would you do? I’d love to hear that answer and I will just leave my answer blank.

STOCCO: That was a very smart question to answer.

DONVAN: Andrea?

STOCCO: So my biggest goal in the next five years would be to be able really to transmit information that is non-binary but continuous and a little bit more richer than sensory motor information and system of information is the thing that we understand best about the brain. We really have beautiful models of information is encoded. And we know and we are learning of these two and with non-invasive technologies to control this information to a certain degree. But when I look at that the idea of, you know, downloading that Wikipedia page, I see all the reasons why this is unrealistic. But I also know that people work on how knowledge is represented and they believe that ultimately, all of the knowledge that we have is an abstraction of how we interact with the world. Knowledge comes from the fact that we have a body and there our body is our interface to get the information from the world and put information out there. And they believe this is a layer of complexity. If in the next five years they can move from this tiny layer here, which is just like what they can feel on the skin, moving a finger and seeing a line hovering over in the visual field, to one level above it. And I actually have no idea what this level could be. It could be like a complex movement or the idea of a movement that that would cause a huge scientific success.

[1:20:30] DONVAN: Chantel.

PRAT: I’m really interested in brain states. So as I said in the beginning I’m really interested in individual differences and one thing we know is that certain people are better learners than others. And one of the things that says whether someone is going to be a good learner is whether they tune in or pay attention at the place when critical information is being delivered. We’re working on-there are char- EEG characteristics of zoning out or focusing or paying attention that we can detect. So we’re working on linking a sort of tutor learner model together which we could up regulate attention in one person when the good learner starts to focus. So so brain states in general I think also have a lot of potential for improving communication. At the root I’m really interested in language. I think it’s one of the most complex things we do and a lot of the big technological advances have been centered on communicating better right? The telegraph, the Internet, et cetera. But imagine if I could not only send words but send some effect, some basic effect, like I’m nervous or I’m- I’m relaxed, you know, some other piece of state of mind with my words. I think that could be really, really advanced communication.

DONVAN: Interesting. Miguel?

NICOLELIS: Well in animals, I think we’re going to continue to pursue the idea of building organic computers. I’m very curious about linking brains together because I think it happens in nature. And it has accelerated over the last three hundred years in our species because of media, different types of media that allow us to link to the Internet or television, radio waves, whatever it is. So I’m very curious because I think brains, individual brains and connected brains compute in a very profound, different way than digital machines do. So I want to study the basic computational laws of these organic computers as a more abstract thing. From a more applied way, I want to create a brain nets with patients. They are either, spinal cord injury patients, or stroke patients aphasic patients, patients that have a neurological deficit, and see if you can stimulate plasticity or recovery, like we saw in the spinal cord injury. Because we use non-invasive in there and it worked very well. So and that’s one point I’d like to make. For different disorders, you may take advantage of non-invasive methods because they’re fine. And for others, like locked-in syndrome for instance, people that can not move any muscle, you may need to get into the brain. So I want to see if brain nets from a clinical point of view can be generalized as a new therapy for rehabilitating neurological circuits in different kinds of pathologies.

DONVAN: Well you have been fascinating and you have also been superb at explaining this to regular folks like me and you have excited us for for the future. And Joe you have given us context, a sense of awareness, also, a sense of adventure and excitement about this as well. Thank you all. Thank you for the questions.

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Mind Melds and Brain Beams: The Dawn of Brain-to-Brain Communication

Music students download the technique of their favorite pianist or singer directly into their brains. Medical students download the skills of a seasoned surgeon or diagnostician. And each one of us routinely uploads our thoughts and memories to the digital cloud. While these scenarios still lie in the future, rudimentary versions of the necessary brain-to-brain technology exist today. But the ability to directly influence another person’s brain raises serious questions about human rights and individual freedoms. This program will present the latest technology and explore how the ethical implications of enhanced thinking go to the heart of consciousness itself.

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Moderator

John DonvanABC Correspondent

John Donvan was just named a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his bestselling book, In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, published in 2016 by Crown Books. He is also host of the Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates, which are heard on public radio and by podcast.

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Participants

Seung-Schik YooNeuroscientist, Engineer

Seung-Schik Yoo is a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, working as an associate professor of Radiology. He also serves as a faculty member of Mind Brain Behavior at Harvard University.

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Andrea StoccoNeuroscientist

Andrea Stocco is an assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is also affiliated with the university’s Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, Institute for Neuroengineering, and Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences.

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Chantel PratNeuroscientist

Chantel Prat is an associate professor of Psychology with an appointment at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at University of Washington. She is also faculty in the Neuroscience graduate program, at the Institute for Neuroengineering, and at the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering.

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Miguel NicolelisNeuroscientist

Miguel Nicolelis, M.D., Ph.D., is the Duke School of Medicine Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience at Duke University, professor of neurobiology, biomedical engineering, and psychology & neuroscience, and founder of Duke’s Center for Neuroengineering.

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Joseph J. FinsPhysician, Medical Ethicist

Joseph J. Fins is The E. William Davis, Jr. M.D. Professor of Medical Ethics and Chief of the Division of Medical Ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College where he is a tenured Professor of Medicine, Professor of Medical Ethics in Neurology and Professor of Health Care Policy and Research.

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