Created on: February 20, 2013 Last Updated: February 22, 2013
In a breakthrough experiment, a team of American scientists has managed to created a new sense—in essence a 'sixth sense'—by endowing rats with the ability to detect infrared light. Experts hailing the success of the breakthrough see possible future applications with humans suffering paralysis that can be treated with specialized electrodes implanted into the brain allowing limbs to function with advanced bionics.
Study a precursor to 'amazing breakthrough'
The research study, done by North Carolina's Duke University scientists, appears in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications. But Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, the lead researcher, indicates that the published study is just a precursor to a really amazing breakthrough that no scientists in the field have thought could be accomplished.
That statement has generated excited speculation among other scientists in the field.
A new breakthrough in "brain-to-brain interface" has been accomplished. That study will be available in a paper due to be published later in March 2013.
Dropping hints about the amazing breakthrough that's being kept a closely guarded mystery for the moment, Nicolelis alluded to direct brain-to-brain communication, almost like a technology that allows mind reading directly by another brain. If true, the feat far surpasses the accomplishments made so far in the field of brain-machine interfaces and opens the door to an entirely new type of brain abilities and communication technologies in the future.
Rats see invisible light
The first experiment, leading up to what Nicolelis alludes to being a truly amazing breakthrough, involved rats fitted with special electrodes. The success has positive implications for humans who suffer from blindness.
The Duke researchers fitted the rats with specially designed infrared detectors that encased their heads. The detectors were attached to electrodes implanted within the region of the brain that controls the sensation and perception of touch.
Invisible light was activated and the rats responded to it physically. According to the study, after training them with the light sources for about one month, the rats were able to consistently determine which of three sources of normally invisible light was active. Since the experiments with the mice the same technique was successfully used with a monkey.
The experiments prove that although regions of the brain developed to process one kind of sensory stimulus, they can be retrained to recognize and process other types of information.
Retraining the brain
The Telegraph quotes Nicolelis explaining that "What we did here was to demonstrate that we could create a new sense in rats by allowing them to 'touch' infrared light that mammals cannot detect. The nerves were responding to both touch and infrared light at the same time. This shows that the adult brain can acquire new capabilities that have never been experienced by the animal before. This suggests that, in the future, you could use prosthetic devices to restore sensory modalities that have been lost, such as vision, using a different part of the brain."
Discovering ways to rewire the brain or redirect it to new tasks is an ongoing venture by research groups around the world. The Duke University study is part of the effort focused on achieving the creation of a second skin or "whole body suit" designed to be used by people suffering untreatable spinal injuries that affects their legs. If successful, the new technology will permit paralyzed patients to walk simply by using new parts of their brain to control the bionic device.
Learn more about this author, Terrence Aym.
Click here to send this author comments or questions.
Below are the top articles rated and ranked by Helium members on:
Why scientists have given lab rats a 'sixth sense'
Cast your vote!
Click for your side.