Transmitting Wisdom to a Brain Through a Sixth Sense of Magnetic Stimulation

Achievement date: 
2016
Outcome/accomplishment: 

Information can be encoded and delivered to the human brain through magnetic stimulation, proving that knowledge can be transmitted without relying on the conventional senses of sight, hearing, and touch. Researchers showed how direct brain stimulation can send useful data to a videogame player in research sponsored by the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE), an NSF-funded Engineering Research Center (ERC) based at the University of Washington (UW).

Impact/benefits: 

“We’re essentially trying to give humans a sixth sense,” said lead researcher Darby Losey, a 2016 UW PhD graduate in computer science and neurobiology. He noted how the research focused on encoding information into the brain, in contrast to decoding information from the brain, which is typically the focus of neural engineering.

Explanation/Background: 

Subjects had to navigate videogame mazes, choosing between moving forward or down based on a visual stimulation artifact called a phosphene, which are perceived as blobs or bars of light. To signal which direction to move, the researchers generated a phosphene through transcranial magnetic stimulation, a well-known technique that uses a magnetic coil placed near the skull to stimulate a specific area of the brain directly and noninvasively.

Test subjects made 92 percent of the right moves in a maze videogame when they received input via direct brain stimulation, compared to 15 percent when they lacked that guidance. The test subjects also improved at the task over time, suggesting they learned to better detect the artificial stimuli.