In a provocative study reminiscent of the hive mind network of Star Treks' Borg villains, researchers have created shared brain networks for the first time by digitally linking multiple animal brains in two ground-breaking experiments.
Neuroscientists at Duke University in the US linked together the brains of monkeys and rodents in separate experiments to study how they can work together to perform simple computational tasks. The neural network created, which the researchers call a 'Brainet', lets the animals share both sensory and motor information with one another, enabling them to complete tasks via their collective thoughts. This means they could potentially outperform a regular brain, because they now have access to the resources of a hive mind.
"Essentially, we created a super-brain," Miguel Nicolelis, the lead author of the study, told Hannah Devlin at The Guardian. "A collective brain created from three monkey brains. Nobody has ever done that before."
In the monkeys experiment, the researchers wired together three rhesus macaque monkeys and implanted receptors in their motor and somatosensory cortices to capture and transmit the brain activity.
Once connected, the three monkeys were able to control the movements of a virtual avatar's arm on a computer screen in front of them. Each monkey had control over only two dimensions of movement, requiring the concentration of at least two of the three animals to successfully move the arm.
In a separate experiment, rodents were linked together by having microwire arrays attached to their somatosensory cortex. The animals then engaged in various memory and pattern recognition tasks together, with the researchers noting if their collective performance was equal or better to that of an individual animal.
"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," Nicolelis said in a statement. "We foresee that shared BMIs will follow the same track, and could soon be translated to clinical practice."
The long-term potential of the research is unknown, but it could have massive implications for human networking, with brain rehabilitation in stroke victims mentioned as one of the opportunities the researchers are interested in exploring.
But as for the real-time 'Brainet' sharing of complex information, personal ideas, and emotional experiences between people? Experts think society wouldn't want it, even if it were technologically possible.
"There may be special instances where you'd want a long-term connection with someone – like a married couple or a military platoon," commented Anders Sandberg of the University of Oxford, who was not involved in the research. "But there's no guarantee that brain-to-brain interfaces will be a sensible thing in practice. There's something to be said for neural privacy."
And, of course, anybody who's seen even a small amount of science fiction cinema made in the last 30 years knows we're on dangerous ground here. In the movies at least, neural networks and hive minds tend to create all kinds of problems for the unwitting humans who create or jack into them: namely the aforementioned Borg, The Matrix, Minority Report, Lawnmower Man, Brainstorm (and the list goes on…). But Nicolelis doesn't seem too worried.
"We're conditioned by movies and Hollywood to think that everything related to science is dangerous and scary," he told Devlin. "These scary scenarios never crossed my mind and I'm the one doing the experiments."
The research is published in Scientific Reports.