Wouldn't it be great if you could get information delivered directly to your brain? It's a very science-fiction sort of idea, but continued experiments demonstrate that it may be feasible, one day.
The latest research, conducted by the University of Washington and published in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI, demonstrates humans being able to successfully play a video game, based on signals delivered directly to their brains.
"The fundamental question we wanted to answer was: Can the brain make use of artificial information that it's never seen before that is delivered directly to the brain to navigate a virtual world or do useful tasks without other sensory input?" said senior author Rajesh Rao in a statement.
"And the answer is yes."
The study tasked five subjects with navigating 21 two-dimensional mazes. The catch was that they couldn't actually see the maze. Information on how to navigate the maze was delivered to the brain via transcranial direct current stimulation.
This is a noninvasive technology that places a magnetic coil behind the subject's head. This delivers a low current directly to an area of the subject's brain. In the case of maze navigation, this results in a blob of light called a phosphene appearing in the subject's vision. This phosphene indicates whether or not there's an obstacle in the subject's path. If there's a phosphene, they need to change direction. If there isn't, they can proceed.
Over time, the subjects got better at navigating the maze, indicating that they could adapt to the system and learn how to use it. The success rate of navigating the maze using this method was an impressive 92 percent.
"We're essentially trying to give humans a sixth sense," said lead author Darby Losey. "So much effort in this field of neural engineering has focused on decoding information from the brain. We're interested in how you can encode information into the brain."
Potential uses for this technology in the future include assisting blind people navigate the world, although it would require a fairly large leap in the technology.
"The tool we use to stimulate the brain is a bulky piece of equipment that you wouldn't carry around with you," said co-author Andrea Stocco. "But eventually we might be able to replace the hardware with something that's amenable to real world applications."