Not content with building a robot with the sole intent of depressing lab rats, it turns out science has even more in store for its favorite test rodents. This time, a team has gone and created brain implants that’ll allow rats to “touch” infrared light, because… Well, alright, admittedly that seems like such an abstract concept that it’s hard to imagine a practical application, but at least it’d make those heistn movie scenes where people break into a room protected by infrared beams a lot more dramatic.
Of course, the scientists behind the implants have a more serious (not to mention, useful) reason behind the test. Miguel Nicolelis, a professor at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina and one of three authors of a study titled Perceiving Invisible Light Through A Somatosensory Cortical Prosthesis, believes that the creation of this type of interface between technology and the human brain could essentially allow the blind to see again… after a fashion.
In the test at the core of the study, rats were taught to “choose” an active light source from a range of three possibilities, with the rats receiving water as a reward when they chose correctly. After their brains had been implanted with electrodes attached to infrared sensors – with the electrodes alerting the touch cortex when infrared signals were present, as opposed to the visual cortex – the active light source was switched to an infrared signal, which the rats were eventually able to track and choose with perfect scores.
What this successfully demonstrated was a way in which sensory input could be delivered to the brain, via technological interface, in ways that bypass traditional delivery systems – which could be impared or damaged in some way. Essentially, Nicolelis explains, it creates the possibility to “hi-jack” portions of the brain and use them as receivers – turning visual input that wouldn’t be accepted by a damaged visual cortex into something else that would be recognized by the portions of the brain that receives sensory.
“We could create devices sensitive to any physical energy,” Professor Nicolelis explained. “It could be magnetic fields, radio waves, or ultrasound. We chose infrared initially because it didn’t interfere with our electrophysiological recordings.”
Nicolelis’ colleague, Professor Eric Thomson, puts the test and its positive results in context, telling the BBC “The philosophy of the field of brain-machine interfaces has until now been to attempt to restore a motor function lost to lesion or damage of the central nervous system, [but] this is the first paper in which a neuroprosthetic device was used to augment function – literally enabling a normal animal to acquire a sixth sense.”
Of course, if we give new senses to rats, eventually they’re going to start using them to rise up against us, Planet of The Apes-style. We all know it’s going to happen eventually.