Researchers Create Brain-to-Brain Interface With Rats

Experiment was able to successfully link the brains of two rats.

A new study was able to successfully “mind meld” the brains of two rats on different continents. Signals were sent through the rodents’ brains that allowed them to communicate and help each other solve problems.

Miguel Nicolelis, a neurobiologist at Duke University Medical centre, put micro-electrodes on matching cortical areas of the rats’ brains. An electric link was attached, and via intracortical microstimulation (ICMS), brain activity of the first rat – the encoder – was transmitted to the brain of the second rat – the decoder.

The electric link is what’s known as a brain-to-brain interface (BTBI), and it enables a real-time transfer of behaviourally meaningful sensorimotor information between the brains of two rats.

The results showed that the decoder rat was able to process the incoming information. In the experiment, the encoder rat was conditioned to push a button to get food. This brain activity pattern was transmitted to the decoder rat, and it was able to replicate the task without any visual cues. The rat completed this with a success rate of sixty-four percent – a low rate, but one that is significantly greater than chance.

Similar accuracy was achieved in a task in which the rats had to judge different stimuli with their whiskers. The implants linked their somatosensory cortices, which are the regions involved in processing the sense of touch.

Both of these tasks were completed with one rat in Natal, Brazil, and the other in a lab in Duke University.

Rats also showed some interesting behaviours during this task. Both the encoder and the decoder received a reward for successful completion of the task. The encoder rat, however, received an extra reward if the decoder completed the task correctly. This led to the encoder rat making cleaner, smoother, and faster movements as the experiment progressed. This provided the decoder rat with easily decipherable signals and encouraged a higher rate of success.

Earlier work from Nicolelis’s team consisted of developing implants that can send and receive signals from the brain, allowing monkeys to control robotic arms, and in return, get a sense of touch. Nicolelis’ current work was in response to this as he wanted to see if he could use these implants to join the brains of two separate animals.

Nicolelis says that this work is the first step towards constructing an organic computer that uses networks of linked animal brains to solve tasks. Other scientists remain skeptical. Lee Miller, a physiologists at Northwestern University, stated that although Nicolelis and his team have made an important contribution to neural interfaces, the current paper could be “mistaken for a poor Hollywood science-fiction script” and that “it is not clear to what end the effect is really being made”.

The next step for Nicolelis and his team is to link the brains of four mice. The researchers then wish to start similar experiments with monkeys and conduct more complex tasks.

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