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Telepathic communication has been a cornerstone of science fiction and science alike for decades. From the Jedi knights in Star Wars to Hans Berger (the father of human electroencephalography), it has been regarded the height of efficient communication. Without the aid of technology, this type of communication is not possible; however, brain-computer interface technology (BCI) has brought us one step closer to making direct brain-to-brain communication a reality.Professor Christopher James, joint director of Warwick University’s Institute of Digital Healthcare (IDH), has used his extensive knowledge of human brain anatomy in conjunction with BCI to send signals from one brain to another.

There are two quirks of the human brain that make this kind of transfer possible. First of all, human visual cortex is ‘retinotopically’ organized, which means that there is a direct correspondence between a specific part of the retina and a specific spot of the visual cortex. Consequently, stimulating a specific spot on the visual cortex will cause someone to see a spot of light in one specific place. Second of all, imagining looking at something elicits activation in the visual cortex much in the same way as looking at something.

What Professor James has done is record the activation pattern in the visual cortex of one individual, use a computer to convert this activation pattern into flashing LED lights of different frequencies and transmit these light patterns to the brain of another person. The result is that the second individual “sees” what the first was imagining.

“It was a basic demonstration of B2B,” Professor James said. “The key idea to grasp is that a person’s eyes cannot distinguish between the different frequencies of flashing lights but a part of his brain, visual cortex, can.”

“It’s not as if the first subject thought of a cat and the recipient visualised a cat,” he added. “But research in the future could make this possible.”

Human Visual Pathway
Information from the retina is represented in primary visual cortex

While this is a really exciting development, it could be a while until telepathy goes mainstream. For now the experiment has only been carried out by James and his daughter using scalp surface electrodes. Using this method they were only able to transfer non-specific patterns of light flashes. In order to transfer more complex patterns, it would be necessary to implant electrodes directly into the brain. Even then, what we see is determined by far more than the activation pattern of our visual cortex; memories, associations, and expectations all play a key role.

In the future, this brain to brain transfer of information could prove invaluable to improving the lives of those with debilitating conditions such as Locked-in Syndrome, end stage Multiple Sclerosis, or even those in a persistent vegetative state. It could also someday allow us to live out our childhood dream of joining the Borg collective.