Brain-Linked Monkeys Form Superorganism, Deftly Control Robotic Arm

Neuroscientists have successfully linked three monkeys’ brains using implanted electrodes and coaxed them to cooperatively control a robotic arm. Oh, and they also performed a similar experiment that directly linked the brains of four rats to test their capacity for synchronicity. (I, for one, welcome our new hive-minded, mammalian overlords.)

That monkeys can coordinate using nothing but brain-waves isn’t particularly new. This new work builds on earlier experiments that linked animals’ brains, both one at a time and in tandem, to prosthetic limbs, but it is far more sophisticated. No one has ever yoked more than two brains in such a way to accomplish a task. What’s more, the trio of mind-melded monkeys frequently did a better job at controlling the robotic arm than one monkey working alone.

Macaca mulatta
The four monkeys involved in the study were all rhesus macaques.

Miguel Nicolelis, director of the Center for Neuroengineering at Duke University and principle investigator for the study, calls the merged minds “brainets.”

Nicolelis and his colleagues started with four electrode-implanted rats, linking them both in parallel and in series, to test whether brains could coordinate signals. For the parallel experiment, they sent two types of signals to the four linked rats. When one signal was sent, the rats were rewarded for synchronizing. When they received the other, they were rewarded for not coordinating their brain waves. Quickly, they were able to react appropriately a majority of the time. Then the neuroscientists linked the rats in series, training the first rat on the signals. Once that rat had properly learned them, they hooked up a second to learn from the first, and so on up to four. Again, the rats quickly passed the test.

Then came the monkeys. First, the team tested two monkeys each linked to a computer. The computer then translated their signals to control a robotic arm. The monkeys were rewarded when they successfully moved a ball. In a second experiment, they had each monkey specialize in a different freedom of movement—one vertical, the other horizontal. In a final test, they hooked up three monkeys to the computer that controlled the arm and let them loose.

Needless to say, other scientists are impressed. Here’s Jessica Hamzelou, reporting for New Scientist:

“This is incredible,” says Andrea Stocco at the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not involved in the project. “We are sampling different neurons from different animals and putting them together to create a superorganism.”

Neuroscientists are still many, many years away from linking human brains, but the research points to some tantalizing possibilities. First, such research requires sophisticated brain-computer interfaces, which, once perfected, could allow people to deftly control advanced prosthetic limbs.

Further in the future, it could also allow a group to coordinate on a difficult task without using language and its inherent barriers. By that point, we may not even need implanted electrodes to tap into a massive brainet—we may only have to slip on a simple headset to contribute our mind’s computing power.