Researchers Wire Monkey Brains Together to Make a Super-Brain

By Carl Engelking | July 10, 2015 12:34 pm


Brain-computer interfaces always sound incredibly futuristic. But this one is even wilder than most.

In a pair of studies published Thursday, researchers say they’ve linked up multiple brains, of both monkeys and rats, to form an “organic computer.” By literally putting their heads together, the networked animals performed simple tasks and computations better than an animal flying solo.

The experiment could point toward future brain interfaces between people, allowing learning or collaboration to pass directly from brain to brain. 

Welcome to Brainet

Telepathy, in a way, has been here for a while. Scientists already demonstrated that we can use brain signals to control mechanical devices like prosthetics or an exoskeleton. We can also transmit signals from one brain to another to control a person’s body movements. However, up to this point, no one had synced a network of brains together in order to accomplish a single task.

Now, Duke researchers have, with the “Brainet.” In one setup, Duke researchers implanted electrodes in the brains of four rats. Researchers beamed the same input signal to each rat’s brain, and a computer monitored each rat’s output signal. When the rats synchronized their output signal, they received a reward. Over time, the rats got better and better at synchronizing their output signals to operate like a basic computer. (Throughout the experiment the rats were fully conscious. When researchers tested the Brainet with unconscious rats, it didn’t work — proving that rats to be active and aware in order for the network to operate.)

Then researchers then tested the rats’ computing power. In one experiment, for example, rats were given two different input signals: a single electric pulse, and a series of electric pulses. The rats were trained to emit synchronized brain activity for one signal and unsynchronized activity for the other. Collectively, they accurately matched the input to the correct output in 87 percent of the trials. That rate was far better than a rat trying to learn the same task on its own.

Researchers’ rat network could even predict an increased or decreased chance of rain upon receiving temperature and barometric pressure information. The results appeared in Scientific Reports.

Monkeying Around

Researchers then shifted their focus to see if a rhesus monkey Brainet could move a computer-simulated arm to a ball. Two networked monkeys, each seeing the same video feed on a computer screen, used brain signals to control the virtual arm. A computer combined the brain signals from both monkeys to perform the task. Here’s the twist: Monkey A only controlled the horizontal movement, while Monkey B controlled the vertical movement.

Despite disparate control of the arm, the monkeys learned how to meld their brain signals together to consistently move the arm to the right spot. In a super test of sorts, three monkeys were connected and tasked with moving the arm, but in three dimensions. Again, the monkeys learned to coordinate their brain signals and moved the arm to the right place. Results from the monkey trial was also published in Scientific Reports.

Organic Computing

Brainets raise a host of mind-bending possibilities, as well as ethical concerns. For some time, the U.S. Army has investigated ways for soldiers to communicate via brain waves. In rehab centers, Brainets could someday help stroke victims re-learn how to control their limb by linking their brain to the brain of someone who still has full motor control. In the living room, gamers of the future might meld their brains together for fun.

But, as the New York Times indicates, there are certainly ethical concerns to consider. If a company records players’ brain signals, could they steal the data? Our socially-networked world already poses a host of privacy concerns about the data we generate. Will neural privacy issues be the ethical concern of tomorrow?

These are heady questions to think about. And, at least for now, you’re on your own.


Photo credit: pittawut/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Technology, top posts
  • Artur Sixto

    Insanity called science. One must be ethically rotten and sensitively handicapped to do this to animals. This looks like Dr. Mengele fantasies.

  • lump1

    This is totally amazing and cool. Still, I’m not sure that they demonstrated brain coordination, because each of the monkeys could individually be trying to move the arm to the ball, but only one dimension of the movement is being picked up for each. If they had a control group of non-networked monkeys each watching a screen, I expect that they still would have succeeded.

    A much better task would be one where what’s right for monkey A to do depends on what monkey B is doing at the time, and vice versa. For example, there would be several balls on the screen, and the networked monkeys would have to pick them all up with each controlling only one axis of the arm. It would fail if vertical monkey was going for blue ball while horizontal monkey was going for green ball. Only if they succeed at something like this can you conclude that they were telepathically coordinating their actions. The described setup is most definitely not like that.

  • Mike Richardson

    Now, I can’t possibly imagine how this could go wrong. Oh wait, thanks to a hearty diet of science fiction, there’s dozens of potential nightmare scenarios I could picture. Something along the lines of the Matrix, maybe? Or, how about hacking the nervous systems of gamers or others using cyber-organic interfaces and taking control of their minds and bodies? People plugged in to the extent that they lose themselves in a group consciousness while their physical bodies waste away? There might be some practical uses for a limited use of this technology, but it really seems like opening Pandora’s box.

    • J_R_K

      “People plugged in to the extent that they lose themselves in a group consciousness while their physical bodies waste away?”

      The Democrats will love it.

      • Mike Richardson

        Right. Because Republicans never engage in groupthink. Don’t Limbaugh’s listeners actually proudly proclaim themselves “Dittoheads?” Seriously, consider some of your comments before posting.

        • J_R_K

          I dunno .. The fact is, the reason the Democrats have been so effectively cleaning the Republicans political clock is that the Democrats, what every else you can say about them, the politicians, the Hollywood elites, the judges and the talking propaganda spreading heads in the media, are team players all playing on the same team. It is difficult to accuse the Republicans of that. In fact, I think the only time you can get the Republicans together is at either a high profile funeral or maybe a free dinner in China.

          Of course, I understand, if you’re a Democrat or just a run of the mill “liberal” individual, then you don’t think other people should be able to post anything you don’t agree with. I understand, that’s just how it is when you’re “plugged in.”

          “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile” and all that.

          LOL Try to develop a sense of humor, will ya?

  • Сурен Акопов

    Human mind reading machine.
    Made a very important ( revolutionary and unpublished ) discovery – invention-the1.first practical device for reading human thoughts / human mind reading machine / Brain Computer Interface. In particular, I have created a means for people with Locked – in Syndrome ( LiS ) and ALS ( such as British physicist Stephen Hawking or Steve Gleason problem ). Another unit called human Speech Generating Device. Discovery is not published. I invite partnership. Thank you. Сурен Акопов. ( Syren Akopov ). About the problem look for example in You Tube :
    1.Jack Gallant, human mind reading machine;
    2.John – Dylan Haynes, human mind reading machine;
    3.Tom Mitchell and Marcel Just, human mind reading machine.

    • woowoo

      before one can be controlled, the electrodes must be implanted.
      Is the Implant Fairy going to do that one night while yopu’re sleeping?

      • Сурен Акопов

        I don’t have and don’t want to have nothing to do with theories M.A. Nicolelis and essentially to Carl Engelking article. ( sorry, but I don’t know English ).
        I believe that the article is false.
        I pointed out to the authors whose you do not look, don’t read, don’t think.
        I made revolutionary(!) discovery – invention in 2013 and two years I can’t publish my discovery! I have a bad situation now in Russia ,very bad…

  • bwana

    Mind control has been a subject of SciFi for years. Now it is becoming real much like SciFi of the past is now science fact today. Good or bad? Could be both depending upon the usage…

  • garedawg

    Perhaps they could hook me up to my cat so I could learn what goes on inside his crazy little mind.

    • J_R_K

      You could end up chasing butterflies that aren’t there, all day.

      • mary.peters13


        • J_R_K

          Moderators, this is the second one..I have received two email notifications from this same advertising parasite.

  • J_R_K

    “The experiment could point toward future brain interfaces between people, allowing learning or collaboration to pass directly from brain to brain. ”

    You know, I had a fella tell me once that the problem with women is that they are so absolutely convinced that they can easily read a mans mind that it really ticks them off when a man is so selfish and inconsiderate that he doesn’t even try to read hers ….. Do you suppose that some day, the federal government will require brain interfaces in the effort to make marriage better and better and maybe, at the same time, get all those terrible chauvinist pigs to tone down the war on women?

    When you mix science playing God in political correctness controlled society, any bad thing can happen.

    “just sayin’ …”

  • Daniel Shock

    This is the key to immortality, I think. Link your brain with a young clone… or maybe an artificial robot brain… eventually your consciousness would become one…work to share memories… when the old body dies…something would be left. Very interesting. Also interesting therapeutic possibilities. Link a traumatized brain with a functioning one, might speed recovery.

  • HiddenWays

    SciFi-wise, William Gray Beyer dealt with this procedure and its outcome in “Minions of the Moon” (1939). Real world, if anyone demonstrates that linked stock pickers do better than the same people working alone, we are off to the races. But I think this is an area where the North Koreans and maybe even the Russians (Beyer’s choice) will be way ahead of us.


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