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brainiac

When two brains really are better than one

Katie Zhuang, Laboratory of Dr. Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University

She’s smart. He’s smart. If we connected their brains together, they’d be really smart. But that’s impossible! Maybe it’s not.

Earlier this month in Nature, neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis published a pair of studies demonstrating that brainpower from several animals can be pooled together via wires to create a superbrain capable of taking on basic motor activities.

“You can share the task and divide the work between multiple subjects who basically merge their brain activity to achieve a goal,” says Nicolelis.

One study was with rats, and the other was with monkeys. In the latter paper, Nicolelis and members of his lab at Duke University implanted hundreds of thin, flexible filaments into the brains of three monkeys. Each filament was connected to a neuron, and the wires from all three monkeys came together in a computer. The monkeys were placed in isolation from each other and made to watch a screen, which contained a virtual “arm” that the monkeys could control just by thinking about how they wanted it to move. The monkeys had to move the arm across the screen toward a target, and when they did that successfully, they got a reward.

The catch? No one monkey could move the arm by himself. One monkey was wired to control movement in the X and Y dimensions, a second monkey controlled movement in the Y and Z dimensions, and a third monkey — who was there as a backup brain for the inevitable occasions when one of the monkeys got distracted — controlled movement in the Z and X dimensions. The monkeys had to coordinate their instructions to the arm to make it move smoothly, all without knowing that their brains were networked together. Amazingly, they did it.

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“It’s fascinating from a scientific point of view,” says Nicolelis. “Just by visual feedback, these animals were able to synchronize their behavior as though they were part of a superbrain.”

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Nicolelis says the phenomenon that he observed in the lab is likely the same thing that’s going on in nature when we see flocks of birds or schools of fish wheeling together in tight formations — through some signal, they’re merging their movement into a single command center.

Back on land, the research has important implications for people who’ve been paralyzed and are learning to use prosthetic devices. These devices can be controlled directly through brain commands but teaching patients how to give those commands is difficult. Over time, paraplegics essentially forget how to give directions to their legs. Using the design Nicolelis has come up with, a patient’s brain could be networked with physical therapist’s, and the two could practice the neural impulses that give rise to walking together.

If brainpower can be harnessed to do that, it’s natural to wonder what else is possible. Could 1,000 Nobel laureates with their brains hooked together crack the secrets of the universe? It’s a big open question, and Nicolelis, despite all the progress he’s made, thinks that sophisticated abstract thinking is greater than the sum of the networked brains engaged in doing it.

“It’s a big debate, whether higher-order thinking can be reduced to a stream of bits and bytes,” he says. “I believe it cannot be.”

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.

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Watch: Monkeys using their collective brain activity

Laboratory of Dr. Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University

In this video, three monkeys are sharing control over the movement of a virtual arm in 3-D space. Each monkey contributes to two of the 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 axes is averaged to determine the arm position (represented by the black dot).