May 2021 | ISE Magazine 37
Brain-to-brain communication:
Science fiction becomes reality
ISEs’ involvement key to developing technology for workplace, medical uses
By Chang S. Nam, Zachary Traylor and Maria Mackie
38 ISE Magazine |
Brain-to-brain communication: Science fiction becomes reality
In the past several decades, the idea of interfacing the
human brain and a computer, once only imagined in
science fiction, has materialized via brain-computer
interface (BrainComputer Interfaces Handbook: Techno-
logical and Theoretical Advances, Chang S. Nam, Anton
Nijholt and Fabien Lotte, 2018).
Always looking for new frontiers, researchers have begun
to turn their attention toward another audacious thought:
Directly extracting and delivering information between
brains, allowing direct brain-to-brain communication.
This new technology, collectively known as brain-to-brain
interface (B2BI), has made us rethink human communica-
tion. Figure 1 illustrates direct bidirectional B2BI commu-
nication system overview.
In general, B2BI combines a neuroimaging method, also
known as BCI, and a neurostimulation method, also known
as computer-brain interface (CBI), to exchange informa-
tion between brains directly in neural code. A BCI (e.g.,
EEG-based motor-imagery BCI) reads a sender’s brain ac-
tivity and then sends it to an interface, e.g., transcranial
magnetic stimulation (TMS) that writes the delivered brain
activity to a receiving brain.
Since its proof of concept by Miguel Pais-Vieira (A
Brain-To-Brain Interface for Real-Time Sharing of Sen-
sorimotor Information,” Pais-Vieira, Mikhail Lebedev,
Carolina Kunicki, Jing Wang and Miguel A.L. Nicolelis,
2013), B2BI has been demonstrated in both animal models
(Building an Organic Computing Device with Multiple
Interconnected Brains,” Miguel Pais-Vieira, Gabriela Chi-
uffa, Mikhail Lebedev and Miguel A.L. Nicolelis, 2013;
2015) and humans (A Direct Brain-
to-Brain Interface in Humans,” Rajesh
P. N. Rao, Andrea Stocco, Matthew
Bryan, Devapratim Sarma, Tiffany M.
Youngquist, Joseph Wu and Chantel
S. Prat, 2014; “Conscious Brain-To-
Brain Communication in Humans Us-
ing Non-Invasive Technologies, Carles
Grau, Romuald Ginhoux, Alejandro
Riera, Thanh Lam Nguyen, Hubert
Chauvat, Michel Berg, Julià L. Amen-
gual, Alvaro Pascual-Leone and Giulio
Rufni, 2014) where same or different
brain regions are invasively or nonin-
vasively recorded and stimulated in
many interesting applications, ranging
from simply transmitting binary infor-
mation (Grau et al., 2014) to creating
biological neural networks (Pais-Vieira
et al., 2015).
However, it is also true that B2BI is
still in its infancy and has a long way to
go before any mainstream adoption. In this article, we re-
view the state-of-the-art work, developments, limitations
and challenges in B2BI research, which is also conducted
in the Brain-Computer Interface and Neuroergonom-
ics Lab at North Carolina State University. In particular,
we point out that industrial and systems engineers need to
be involved in developing and investigating this emerg-
ing neural interfacing technology to make sure we fully
explore and correctly apply its potential (Brain-to-Brain
Communication Based on Wireless Technologies: Actual
and Future Perspectives,” Dick Carrillo Melgarejo, Renan
Moioli and Pedro Nardelli, 2019).
B2BI, at its logical extremes, could help rehabilitate
stroke victims, enable mind-to-mind communication – a
precursor to what eventually could resemble telepathy –
and help people receive tasks best suited to their brain as
they collaborate with others. B2BI could be used for brain
rehabilitation of musculature control in stroke victims or
brain tumor patients.
People who have had strokes or brain tumors removed
often lose some cognitive ability, preventing their brain
from producing certain patterns. Sometimes this is minor,
like forgetting a word, but it can also cut out motor pat-
terns that the brain uses to walk or grip things. B2BI could
be used to help stimulate parts of the brain to send infor-
mation to a stroke patient, who would move an arm or
build strength in the neural pathways as they worked with
their B2BI partner (Secure Brain-to-Brain Communica-
tion With Edge Computing for Assisting Post-Stroke Par-
alyzed Patients,” Sreeja Rajesh, Varghese Paul, Varun G.
A brain-to-brain link
An overview of a direct bidirectional B2BI communication system. An EEG-based motor
imagery BCI system is shown schematically (e.g., motor imagery of the hands codes the
bit value 0 and of the feet codes bit value of 1). A noninvasive neurostimulation technology,
also known as CBI (e.g., TMS), is illustrated, encoding the brain-driven information (e.g.,
the two bit values from the BCI). Communication between brains via the BCI and CBI
systems can be mediated by the internet.
May 2021 | ISE Magazine 39
Menon, Sunil Jacob and P. Vinod,
2020). This partner would send
signals that would help the patient
understand what moving a leg or
arm should feel like and look like in
the brain. Repeated use and neural
stimulation would help the patient
to relearn the motions he or she had
before the stroke. This opens up a
wide range of therapeutic options
for the technology.
There are many possible uses for
B2BI in the medical sector beyond
only benefiting research. Speci-
cally, it offers potential applications
in communication, specifically in
patients with neurological damage
(“Ethical Issues in Neuroprosthet-
ics,” Walter Glannon, 2016; “Brain-
to-Brain Interfaces: When Reality
Meets Science Fiction,” Nicolelis,
2014). Communication happens
most in spoken or written form,
which may not be possible or easy
to use for stroke patients or patients
of neurodegenerative diseases.
For example, people who have
neurodegenerative diseases slowly
lose the ability to talk and then find it hard to type as the
disease progresses. B2BI would allow them to communi-
cate solely through the use of their brain, subverting any
physical disabilities. The person with whom they are com-
municating would receive signals from the sender using a
B2BI. The receiver or caretaker would not need to send any
information back through neural networks to the sender
since the caretaker can communicate by voice. This appli-
cation of B2BI would only need a few improvements, such
as making the technology more portable and speeding up
rates of transmission, to be possible in the near future.
A more general application for B2BI in the future is to
introduce new ways to deal with human factors engineer-
ing. B2BIs could be used for measuring fatigue, for tim-
ing breaks or for creating a more synchronous workforce.
There have already been tests conducted where partici-
pants doing a task are given harder or easier tasks based on
their cognitive states (“Increasing Human Performance by
Sharing Cognitive Load Using Brain-To-Brain Interface,
Vladimir A. Maksimenko, Alexander E. Hramov, Nikita
S. Frolov, Annika Lüttjohann, Vladimir O. Nedaivozov,
Vadim V. Grubov, Anastasia E. Runnova, Vladimir V. Ma-
karov, Jürgen Kurths and Alexander N. Pisarchik, 2018).
Electrical activity from two users’ brains as they performed
the task allowed a computer, through B2BI, to assign the
pair the task that would add the least fatigue to the group.
This cannot be done as effectively without a constant
monitoring system as the feedback from the brain gives
more direct feedback about the fatigue. The study included
a pair of operators in which the more skilled operator got
harder tasks and the less skilled operator got easier tasks.
This would allow better timing for breaks as individuals
would fatigue closer to the same rate. It would also allow
the computer to monitor their fatigue levels for specific
constrained tasks to ensure the best break times are identi-
fied and used. This could drastically improve the amount
of time spent on breaks as they could be put in place when
needed by the most workers for the time they need to re-
cover or by allowing individualized breaks based on cogni-
tive stress.
While this differs from a typical transmission of infor-
mation from one brain to another, there is still a closed
feedback loop connecting multiple subjects’ BCIs, and thus
their brains. Other human optimization that could be done
with B2BI is in synchronizing workers in a group of con-
nected minds. In a factory where multiple people need to
perform the same task at the same time, a sort of hive mind
could allow them to act simultaneously even if they are out
N.C. State lab focused on brain interface,
The Brain-Computer Interface and Neuroergonomics Lab at North Carolina State
University is involved in research concerning brain-computer interface (BCI), a
nonmuscular communication and control system that does not depend on the normal
pathways of peripheral nerves and muscles. BCIs allow users, including those with
severe motor disabilities such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou
Gehrig’s disease), to interact with the world through brain waves.
BCI has recently gained considerable research interest, especially in research involving
disabled persons, and many useful applications have been discovered.
The lab, directed by Chang S. Nam, is involved in research and development of
BCI that includes such projects as brain-computer interfaces, neuroergonomics,
neurorehabilitation, trust in human-robot interaction and human-computer interactions.
Learn more at
Chang S. Nam Zachary Traylor Maria Mackie
40 ISE Magazine |
Brain-to-brain communication: Science fiction becomes reality
of sight or hearing (Pais-Vieira, et al., 2015). This could
improve the efficiency and safety of many different opera-
tions where operators must work in tandem.
Currently B2BI is limited by clunky setups that make
true back-and-forth communication very odd to set up.
There are two different types of setups needed for each
person – one to send information and another to receive
it. However, these must each have a separate region of the
brain to work on because current technology cannot easily
read and write in the same area of the brain. The current
setups to read and write are too bulky and target too much
of the brains area to be able to easily set up both sending
and receiving headsets on the same person.
The other main limit is the lack of detail in sending
Forgot your password?
Brain-computer interface could help
Advances in brain-computer interfaces (BCI) in the workplace have led to discussions about the potential practical uses and the
ethical concerns of being able to measure workers’ thoughts. Yet in addition to other potential benefits, the technology could help
many in their day-to-day activities.
One possible application would be assisting with lost or forgotten online passwords. Researchers are experimenting with use
of “passthoughts” as an alternative. The process would allow someone to log on to their devices and platforms by using thoughts
passed through an EEG connection placed in the ear canal like an earbud. Such signals would allow individuals to authenticate
their unique identities via brain waves.
A team of researchers the University of California at Berkeley, led by John Chuang, created such a device with a $100 consumer-
grade EEG headset, then fitted it for the ear. They conducted a study with 12 volunteers performing a series of mental tasks and
found the device could verify their identities 72-80% of the time. Worn as designed on the forehead, the device was accurate
more than 99% of the time.
Chuang then sought to test the device when the wearer’s mental state changed due to mood, stress, fatigue or other factors that
might alter the brain’s electrical signals. He experimented with his teenage son and 10 volunteers and found that after one minute
of exercise, it took up to 60 seconds for brain signals to return to normal.
“Clearly a lot more work needs to be done for this to be effective and useful in the real world,” Chuang told IEEE Spectrum. “But
at least we know this is an area that we can continue to investigate.”
May 2021 | ISE Magazine 41
messages. Currently, participants in B2BI studies get bi-
nary signals sent to them, which they then interpret and to
which they react. For example, a flash of light in a pattern
might mean to click a button and a “no” light means to
wait. If people use morse code or other binary communica-
tion, it can be used to have more complex conversations but
limits the accessibility to simple yes/no actions or similar
Breakthroughs will come when
the EEG headsets become easier to
wear; neurostimulation technology
advances – such as transductor ar-
rays for focused ultrasonics stimula-
tion (FUS) becoming more com-
mon, cheaper and easier to fit into a
helmet; data transfer rates go up; or
when we can send and receive data
in the brain using one technology
(Optimizing Computer–Brain In-
terface Parameters for Non-invasive
Brain-to-Brain Interface,” John
LaRocco and Dong-Guk Paeng, 2020). If the technology
can be wireless, it will become more practical for all the
ways discussed earlier (Melgarejo et al., 2019).
To overcome these limits, researchers need to create
partnerships with medical professionals and programmers
for both neurostimulation safety and articial intelligence,
respectively, allowing engineers who understand these
systems to work closely with rehabilitation professionals
who may one day use B2BI in the field. Future research
and funding may show us the benefits of overcoming
B2BI’s challenges, such as transmitting abstract thought
or emotions, more adaptive two-way links between par-
ticipants and higher data transfer rates (LaRocco & Paeng,
2020; Melgarejo et al., 2019).
Industrial and systems engineers need to be involved in
developing and testing applications of this technology to
make sure we fully explore and correctly apply its poten-
tial (Melgarejo et al., 2019) for these reasons:
ISEs will benefit from being able to create an even more
efficient and safe workforce with the new tools of behav-
ioral synchronization, communication and rehabilitation
through B2BI.
ISEs can benefit the field of B2BI with their expertise in
design, manufacturing and supply chains as well as opti-
mization. ISEs can design and test slimmer, lighter and
more ergonomic EEG helmets and manufacturing ISEs
can be involved in making these improved helmets.
ISEs can also be involved in improving the data commu-
nication side of B2BI. When data is collected, it is im-
portant to optimize methods for feature extraction and
classification and to assess human performance with the
All of the above are reasons that the field of B2BI would
welcome ISEs’ involvement. However, the benefit to hav-
ing ISEs design and test current brain to brain interfaces is
that the future technology will better fit the needs of their
field to improve productivity and
satisfaction in the workforce they
support. Industrial and systems en-
gineers who get involved now will
inform the direction that B2BI and
BCI go as the field develops.
The study of direct brain-to-
brain interface is slowly fullling its
potential to make waves in medical
treatment, factory optimization and
ISE as a whole. With the involve-
ment of industrial and systems en-
gineers, we will fully explore and
apply this amazing potential and
overcome the current limitations of the technology. As
B2BI emerges, we need engineers to get involved; the more
that research progresses, the sooner the technology can be
used in supporting the rehabilitation of stroke victims, in
analyzing and optimizing this new way of communicating
and in helping to optimize task assignment based on cogni-
tive states.
Chang S. Nam is a professor at Edward P. Fitts Industrial and Sys-
tems Engineering, North Carolina State University. He is also an
associated professor of the UNC/NCSU Joint Department of Bio-
medical Engineering, Psychology and UNC-CH Brain Research
Imaging Center. His research interests center around brain-computer
interfaces, social cognitive and affective neuroscience, human-robot
interaction and human-centered explainable articial intelligence.
He serves as editor-in-chief of the journal Brain-Computer Inter-
faces. He is an IISE member. Contact him at
Zachary Traylor has a bachelors degree in psychology from Loui-
siana State University and a Ph.D. in industrial and systems en-
gineering at North Carolina State University’s Brain-Computer
Interface and Neuroergonomics Lab. He now works on advanc-
ing brain-computer interface applications and developing direct
brain-to-brain interfaces. He is an IISE member. Contact him at
Maria Mackie is pursuing an undergraduate degree in industrial
and systems engineering from North Carolina State University.
She was part of a robotics team in high school and currently men-
tors a middle school FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) robotics team.
Contact her at
Industrial and systems
engineers need to be
involved in developing and
testing applications of this
technology to make sure we
fully explore and correctly
apply its potential.