Peoria Public Radio Staff
Fri March 1, 2013
Researchers Connect Rats' Minds Via Internet
An experiment that used rats to create a "brain-to-brain interface" shows that instructions can be transferred between animals via electronic signals and the Internet, according to scientists who studied how rats can use brain implants to share problem-solving information.
The research could be used to create "novel types of social interaction and for biological computing devices," lead scientist Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University writes in his summary of the study, published in Scientific Reports.
In the study, researchers trained rats to perform simple tasks to receive a reward based on either visual or physical stimuli. Scientists then implanted microelectrodes in the brains of the animals, which were split into "encoder" and "decoder" groups.
In one experiment, rats were shown a single light that indicated which of two levers to press for a drink of water. When it performed the task, signals were sent to another rat's brain in an identical cage, where the animal was shown two lights and two levers. The "decoding" rats were able to make the right choice more than 60 percent of the time.
A similar test was conducted using an "encoder" rat in Brazil, paired with a "decoder" rat in Durham, N.C., via an Internet connection.
The "rat mind-meld" experiment has met with some skepticism. For instance, neuroscientist Bijan Pesaran of New York University tells Wired that he'd "really be impressed" if the rats learned how to achieve a better success rate.
A similar idea occurs to University of Pittsburgh neurobiologist Andrew Schwartz, who tells science writer Ed Yong, "Although this may sound like 'mental telemetry', it was a very simple demonstration of binary detection and binary decision-making."
That's not quite the same, he says, as a continuous mind-to-mind connection.
If that thought makes you worry that rats might someday use the technology to work against humankind, professor Christopher James, from Britain's University of Warwick, says you can relax.
"We are far from a scenario of well-networked rats around the world uniting to take us over, the stimulation is crude and specific," he tells The Daily Mail.
The lead researcher, Nicolelis, tells Ed Yong that he's working to link together the brains of more than two animals — and that he'll soon begin experimenting with monkeys, which could "control virtual avatars and combine their brain activity to play a game together," Yong writes.
"Rats don't have a sense of self so it's hard to say what the effect on the animals are," Nicolellis says, "but monkeys can collaborate in a much more complex way."
The possibility of connecting brains with computers is a hallmark of Nicolelis' work. He has previously tested ways to connect monkeys' brains with robotic arms. And he hopes to create a body suit that could allow paralyzed people to gain full mobility. His lab has received $26 million in funding from DARPA — the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — Reuters reports.