Scientist who gave rats 'sixth sense' promises bigger revolutions ahead
Research into 'man-machine interface' could one day allow people to communicate directly with electronic devices by thought alone
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent and i. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; four times highly commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigations into the tobacco industry. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Sunday 17 February 2013
The scientist who has given a “sixth sense” to laboratory animals by allowing them to detect invisible infrared light has promised an even bigger revolution in the research field he has pioneered.
Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian neuroscientist working at Duke University in the United States, said that he has created a way of allowing animals to communicate with each other through artificial aids connected directly to their brains.
The research into the “man-machine interface” could one day allow people to communicate directly with electronic devices by thought alone. It could allow paralysed people to control artificial limbs or give blind or deaf people the possibility of seeing or hearing with the help of brain implants.
Professor Nicolelis said that he has now taken the research into a different realm by creating what he has called the “brain-to-brain inferface”. He said he could not provide further details because the work is due to be published later this month in a peer-reviewed journal under a strict confidentiality agreement.
Last week Professor Nicolelis announced in a study published in Nature Communications that he had given rats the ability to “feel” infrared light by attaching light detectors to the touch-sensitive regions of their brain, which normally detect the movements of their face whiskers.
The rats were able to sense infra-red light effectively through the region of the brain connected to their whiskers. They used the light to locate water in a totally dark chamber.
It was the first time that animals have been given a “sixth sense” using electronic devices connected directly to their brain, he said.
“Our rats learn to touch invisible light. They are not seeing infrared light, but they are learning a concept that is similar to synesthesia [when one sense is detected by a different kind of sensory organ],” Professor Nicolelis said.
“They learned to touch invisible light that is delivered by stimulating the touch cortex [of the brain]. In 30 days these animals acquired this pseudo-touch and we learned that they could use this to control other devices,” he told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.
“It was a big surprise because we bypassed the skin, we didn’t use the skin to deliver this signal...the animal is feeling light, not seeing light. It’s very interesting,” he said.
“We have extended this concept to what we have called a brain-to-brain interface...It’s an interface that no-one has dreamed could be done,” he added.
Although the researchers used infra-red light, Professor Nicolelis said that any physical energy, such as ultrasound, radio-waves or magnetic fields could be used as a new kind of sense.
It raised the prospect in the future of augmenting the human senses with brain implants that could detect things that are currently undetectable by the body, such as ultrasound, he said.
The rats in the experiment initially tried to rub their whiskers when they detected infra-red light. This was because a miniature light detector fitted to their heads was sending electrical impulses directly to the touch-sensitive region of the brain connected to whisker movements.
However, within the space of a few weeks they had learnt through training to distinguish this extra, artificial sense from real stimulation of their whiskers and use it to find water in a completely dark chamber, Professor Nicolelis said.
“It’s like driving a car or riding a bike. My suspicion is that these animals are feeling touch, its different from regular touch in that they are projecting the feeling of touch, not from their body, but to the external world,” he said.
“We have a monkey now that learned the same task and I was surprised at how quick he was. Now we are equipping our rats with a 360-degree view of the environment so that they can see infrared anywhere, up and down,” he added.
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