Lab rats gained a “sixth sense” with the help of a brain implant that allowed them to “touch” the infrared light, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications.
Seeing in the infrared spectrum with the help of a brain implant
A team of researchers at Duke University in North Carolina, led by Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, announced during the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston that this new breakthrough opens the way for a new generation of prosthetic devices.
They can be controlled by the brain and in the future, will probably give people the ability to “see” in the infrared spectrum of electromagnetic radiation.
Laboratory rats were implanted with infrared sensors, connected through tiny electrodes with the part of their brain responsible for processing tactile information. Thus, when the animals accepted infrared signals, the brain interpreted them as tactile stimuli.
Within one month, the rats had learned to fully correlate the signals of infrared light received by the brain, with a pseudo-tactile sensation, without involving the skin in the process.
That is, while the animals saw infrared light, they perceived it as a touch stimulus and scratched their fur, feeling like touching the invisible infrared light.
This new sensory ability reminds the rare phenomenon of ‘synaesthesia’, i.e. the ability of some people to perceive a sensory stimulus with a different sensation (for instance, “see” music or “smell” colors).
Vision through… touch
As explained by Dr. Nicolelis, these experiments – which were successfully repeated on monkeys – showed that a sensory stimulus (infrared vision) can be processed in an area of the brain that has evolved for a different sense (touch) without side effects, since the normal tactile perception of the animals was not disrupted by the implant.
This, according to the scientists, means that theoretically, in the future, blind people with damaged visual cortex would be able to see again with the help of an “electronic eye”, which would receive optical signals and process them in other brain regions.
Dr. Nicolelis said, “What we did shows that the adult brain can acquire new abilities never experienced before.”
As he added, except for the infrared light, a similar “synesthesia” could possibly occur with ultrasound, radio waves, magnetic fields, etc.
Enhancement of the sensory capabilities
Thus, the appropriate electronic implants could dramatically expand the sensory capabilities of the human brain, with the result that people would be able to perceive things that are not endowed by biological evolution with appropriate sensors.
In the same vein, Dr. Nicolelis said that the research team achieved the first “brain-to-brain interface”, passing for the first time direct brain signals from one animal to another.
As he said, “it is an interface that no one had ever dreamed that would be possible.”
The international scientific community awaits publication in the scientific journal Nature next month. It is most likely to open the way for electronic brain implants which one day will allow direct communication between the brains of two people.
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