Scientists Give Lab Rats a Sixth Sense via Implants

Implants let the animals detect light in the infrared spectrum

By on February 14th, 2013 15:27 GMT

The idea of implants is one that science fiction has been going on about for decades, and which has been turned into reality to a certain extent, but which only now is crossing over the boundaries into the fantastical.

As is often the case, the first steps towards a new scientific milestone were taken by testing theories on lab rats.

And we aren't talking about the rat-depressing robo-rat. That's a rather questionable invention we looked into two days ago.

Instead, we are looking at the results of a different research project, one carried out by scientists at the Duke Center for Neuroengineering.

The first step was building a brain-machine interface that includes an infrared detector.

The second part was implanting the rats with that interface, only not in the brain center for sight as some might expect.

Instead, the infrared detector was placed in the part of the brain that processes the sense of touch. The result was a sort of sixth sense that lets them detect infrared light normally invisible to them.

To test and train the lab rats, they were offered rewards (water mostly) when they managed to poke their nose in ports attached to a visible LED light.

Over the course of another month, the scientists replaced the LED light with infrared ones, to see if they were “seen” by the rats.

As it happened, the sensors attached to the rat foreheads (links to the brain implants) did, indeed, pick them up. Throughout it all, touch continued to be processed.

"When we recorded signals from the touch cortex of these animals, we found that although the cells had begun responding to infrared light, they continued to respond to whisker touch," said lead researcher Miguel Nicolelis. "It was almost like the cortex was dividing itself evenly so that the neurons could process both types of information."

The research could one day help "hijack" a person's working sense to make up for the loss of another, though human “sixth senses” could be sough as well.

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