Network of Brains (Brainet)
NEUROSCIENTISTS DEMONSTRATE OPERATION OF THE FIRST NETWORK OF BRAINS (BRAINET) IN BOTH PRIMATES AND RODENTS
Neuroscientists at Duke University have introduced a new paradigm for brain-machine interfaces that investigates how the brains of two or more animals (either monkeys or rats) can be networked to work together as part of a single computational system to perform motor tasks (in the case of monkeys) or simple computations (multiple rat brains). These functional networks of animal brains have been named Brainets by the authors of the studies. In the two Brainet examples reported in the July 9th 2015 issue of Scientific Reports, groups of animals were able to literally merge their collective brain activity together to either control the movements of a virtual avatar arm in three dimensions to reach a target (monkey Brainet), or to perform a variety of computational operations (rat Brainet), including pattern recognition, storage and retrieval of sensory information and even weather forecasting. These latter examples suggest that animal Brainets could serve as the core of organic computers that employ a hybrid digital-analog computational architecture.
Neuroscientists create organic-computing ‘Brainet’ network of rodent and primate brains — humans next
Rodent network performs sophisticated image processing and avatar-control tasks, presaging future hybrid digital-analog parallel-processing organic computers
July 10, 2015
Experimental apparatus scheme for a Brainet computing device. A Brainet of four interconnected brains is shown. The arrows represent the flow of information through the Brainet. Inputs were delivered (red) as simultaneous intracortical microstimulation (ICMS) patterns (via implanted electrodes) to the somatosensory cortex of each rat. Neural activity (black) was then recorded and analyzed in real time. Rats were required to synchronize their neural activity with the other Brainet participants to receive water. (credit: Miguel Pais-Vieira et al./Scientific Reports)
Duke University neuroscientists have created a network called “Brainet” that uses signals from an array of electrodes implanted in the brains of multiple rodents in experiments to merge their collective brain activity and jointly control a virtual avatar arm or even perform sophisticated computations — including image pattern recognition and even weather forecasting.
Brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) are computational systems that allow subjects to use their brain signals to directly control the movements of artificial devices, such as robotic arms, exoskeletons or virtual avatars. The Duke researchers at the Center for Neuroengineering previously built BMIs to capture and transmit the brain signals of individual rats, monkeys, and even human subjects, to control devices.
“Supra-brain” — the Matrix for monkeys?
As reported in two open-access papers in the July 9th 2015 issue of Scientific Reports, in the new research, rhesus monkeys were outfitted with electrocorticographic (ECoG) multiple-electrode arrays implanted in their motor and somatosensory cortices to capture and transmit their brain activity.
For one experiment, two monkeys were placed in separate rooms where they observed identical images of an avatar on a display monitor in front of them, and worked together to move the avatar on the screen to touch a moving target.
In another experiment, three monkeys were able to mentally control three degrees of freedom (dimensions) of a virtual arm movement in 3-D space. To achieve this performance, all three monkeys had to synchronize their collective brain activity to produce a “supra-brain” in charge of generating the 3-D movements of the virtual arm.
In the second Brainet study, three to four rats whose brains have been interconnected via pairwise brain-to-brain interfaces (BtBIs) were able to perform a variety of sophisticated shared classification and other computational tasks in a distributed, parallel computing architecture.
Human Brainets next
These results support the original claim of the Duke researchers that brainets may serve as test beds for the development of organic computers created by interfacing multiple animals brains with computers. This arrangement would employ a unique hybrid digital-analog computational engine as the basis of its operation, in a clear departure from the classical digital-only mode of operation of modern computers.
“This is the first demonstration of a shared brain-machine interface, said Miguel Nicolelis, M.D., Ph. D., co-director of the Center for Neuroengineering at the Duke University School of Medicine and principal investigator of the study. “We foresee that shared-BMIs will follow the same track and soon be translated to clinical practice.”
Nicolelis and colleagues of the Walk Again Project, based at the project’s laboratory in Brazil, are currently working to implement a non-invasive human Brainet to be employed in their neuro-rehabilitation training paradigm with severely paralyzed patients.
In this movie, three monkeys share control over the movement of a virtual arm in 3-D space. Each monkey contributes to two of three axes (X, Y and Z). Monkey C contributes to y- and z-axes (red dot), monkey M contributes to x- and y-axes (blue dot), and monkey K contributes to y- and z-axes (green dot). The contribution of the two monkeys to each axis is averaged to determine the arm position (represented by the black dot). (credit: Arjun Ramakrishnan et al./Scientific Reports)
Abstract of Building an organic computing device with multiple interconnected brains
Recently, we proposed that Brainets, i.e. networks formed by multiple animal brains, cooperating and exchanging information in real time through direct brain-to-brain interfaces, could provide the core of a new type of computing device: an organic computer. Here, we describe the first experimental demonstration of such a Brainet, built by interconnecting four adult rat brains. Brainets worked by concurrently recording the extracellular electrical activity generated by populations of cortical neurons distributed across multiple rats chronically implanted with multi-electrode arrays. Cortical neuronal activity was recorded and analyzed in real time, and then delivered to the somatosensory cortices of other animals that participated in the Brainet using intracortical microstimulation (ICMS). Using this approach, different Brainet architectures solved a number of useful computational problems, such as discrete classification, image processing, storage and retrieval of tactile information, and even weather forecasting. Brainets consistently performed at the same or higher levels than single rats in these tasks. Based on these findings, we propose that Brainets could be used to investigate animal social behaviors as well as a test bed for exploring the properties and potential applications of organic computers.
Abstract of Computing arm movements with a monkey Brainet
Traditionally, brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) extract motor commands from a single brain to control the movements of artificial devices. Here, we introduce a Brainet that utilizes very-large-scale brain activity (VLSBA) from two (B2) or three (B3) nonhuman primates to engage in a common motor behaviour. A B2 generated 2D movements of an avatar arm where each monkey contributed equally to X and Y coordinates; or one monkey fully controlled the X-coordinate and the other controlled the Y-coordinate. A B3 produced arm movements in 3D space, while each monkey generated movements in 2D subspaces (X-Y, Y-Z, or X-Z). With long-term training we observed increased coordination of behavior, increased correlations in neuronal activity between different brains, and modifications to neuronal representation of the motor plan. Overall, performance of the Brainet improved owing to collective monkey behaviour. These results suggest that primate brains can be integrated into a Brainet, which self-adapts to achieve a common motor goal.
Animal Brains Networked Into Organic Computer ‘Brainet’
Imagine a future where computers no longer run on silicon chips. The replacement?
Thanks to two separate studies recently published in Scientific Reports, we may be edging towards that future. In a series of experiments, scientists connected live animal brains into a functional organic computer. The “Brainet”, as they call it, could perform basic computational tasks—and do it better than each animal alone.
“Scientifically and technically, this is brilliantly done,” says Dr. Natasha Kovacevic, a brain-machine interface expert at the Rotman Research Institute who was not involved in the study, to Singularity Hub. “It’s amazing, but also scary that we can use live animals mechanistically as computer chips.”
The team, led by Dr. Miguel A. L. Nicolelis from Duke University, has long been pushing the boundaries of brain-machine interfaces—to the point machines are no longer even in the equation. A few years back, they broke ground when they developed a system that allowed monkeys to move a virtual arm with their brain waves alone, and “feel” whatever the digital avatar touched.
The new cutting-edge eschews arms—robotic or virtual—altogether, and goes directly brain-to-brain.
In 2013, Nicolelis and colleagues transferred information between two rat brains with the aid of a brain chip. They trained an “encoder” rat to press one of two potential levers upon seeing an LED light, while they recorded its cortical activity.
Next, the team used the recordings to stimulate the corresponding brain regions of a second rat that wasn’t trained on the task. Impressively this “decoder” rat picked the correct lever over 60% of the time—a result that, while imperfect, suggested it might be feasible to couple animals’ brains together into a network.
Given that wiring multiple processors in parallel speeds up digital computers, the team wondered if forming a Brainet might likewise give biological computers a speed boost.
In the first study, the team implanted arrays of microelectrodes that both record signals and stimulate neurons into the brains of four rats. They then physically hooked the rat brains up using a brain-to-brain interface.
After giving all rats a short zap that acted as a “go” signal, the team monitored their brain waves and rewarded the animals with water if the brain waves oscillated in unison. The purpose? To see whether by synching brains up, subjects might be able to achieve a goal that no single brain can do individually, Nicolelis told Motherboard.
Through many trials over the next 1.5 weeks, the rats learned to synchronize their brain waves at will.
In one experiment, a kind of bizarre game of “telephone,” the scientists found they could transmit information sequentially through the Brainet. First, they hooked up three rats, then stimulated the first rat’s brain, recorded the resulting activity, and delivered it to the second rat. Not only did the second rat produce a similar brain activity pattern that was further passed down the chain, but the third rat reliably decoded and delivered the pattern back to the first animal, which reported the correct “message” in roughly 35% of the trials—around two times better than how each rat performed when having to do the same four-step task alone.
Essentially, Nicolelis turned rat brains into a meaty artificial network that could classify, store and transfer data. However, no “thinking” in the traditional sense occurred; the animals’ sensory cortices simply functioned like silicon processors.
In a separate study, scientists built upon previous work in the field of neuroprosthetics to see if a Brainet could control a digital arm better than its individual components.
The team implanted a large electrode array into three rhesus monkeys to record their brain activity, and then taught the animals to move a virtual arm in 3D space by picturing the motion in their heads. The monkeys were then given shared control over the arm, with each member in charge of only two out of the three dimensions.
Despite not being physically wired together, the monkeys’ brain activity synchronized, allowing them to match each other’s movement speed and collectively grab a digital ball with ease. The system was also resilient to slackers—even if one member dropped the ball (pun intended) and tuned out momentarily, the other two still managed to perform the task (just far less efficiently).
Both studies show that when it comes to combining brainpower, 1+1=2.1. The same holds true for humans. When gamers combined their brainwaves through EEG to control a spacecraft simulator in a computer game, they did it better than each person alone.
With increasingly sophisticated devices that stimulate and record the brain non-invasively, it’s not hard to picture the possibility of wiring up human brains to solve thorny problems that baffle individual minds.
In fact, Kovacevic recently crowdsourced EEG data from over 500 volunteers as they collectively played a neurofeedback game at My Virtual Brain, a spectacle that combines science with art and music.
Brainets are certainly intellectually intriguing, Kovacevic acknowledges. Yet privacy and other ethical issues aside, there’s something disturbing about this image, she says. “My main concern is that we, as humans, are losing something of ourselves when we use sentient beings as simple computational tools.”
Just because we can do something, does it mean we should?
“With all due respect, in this case I vote no.”
You know what they say: Two heads are better than one, and three heads are better than two. But now, it’s more than an idiomatic expression. In a new report published in Nature, scientists detail how they successfully linked the brains of multiple rats and monkeys, creating an “organic computer” or a “brainet” that can do some pretty incredible things. As Miguel Nicolelis, the study’s lead author, told The Guardian, “Essentially, we created a super-brain,” one that worked together to move a prosthetic arm, or alternatively, predict the weather.
Though the technology has only been tested on monkeys and rats thus far, the implications for the human mind are truly exciting. In one experiment, scientists wired the brains of three monkeys who were placed in separate rooms, and tasked them with controlling a virtual arm they observed on a screen. Their brains were not connected to one another, but rather to a computer, and only by thinking together could they successfully create movement on the screen. After completing this task, the team added an additional challenge, allowing each monkey to only control one dimension of movement. Still, the monkeys were able to think together. Said Nicolelis, “They synchronize their brains and they achieve the task by creating a superbrain — a structure that is the combination of three brains.”
In another experiment though, the team did connect brains to one another, as well as to a computer. Four rats were mind-linked and rewarded whenever they achieved some sort of synchrony in their brain activity. After their 10th training session, the rats thought as one a stunning 61 percent of the time. And when they used the power of all four of their brains, the rats were able to solve simple weather problems, like whether or not it would rain, with a much higher rate of accuracy than they were able to do independently.
Said Nicolelis, “This is the first demonstration of a shared brain-machine interface, a paradigm that has been translated successfully over the past decades from studies in animals all the way to clinical applications.” Much like parallel processing works in a computer, a number of scientists and academics have expressed great excitement over the wealth of possibilities this study opens up, especially when applied to humans. Andrea Stocco of the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not part of the original project, told the New Scientist, “Once brains are connected, applications become just a matter of what different animals can do. All anyone can probably ask of a monkey is to control movement, but we can expect much more from human minds … Sometimes it’s really hard to collaborate if you are a mathematician and you’re thinking about very complex and abstract objects. If you could collaboratively solve common problems [using a brainet], it would be a way to leverage the skills of different individuals for a common goal.”
So who knows, perhaps in the not-so-distant future, we’ll be able to share a collective intelligence to solve all the world’s problems.