Scientists have pulled off a real world, rodent-scale version of Vulcan "mind meld" from Star Trek, linking the brains of pairs of rats together over the internet to allow them to share sensory information and solve problems together in realtime without being in the same room, or even on the same continent. "These experiments showed that we have established a sophisticated, direct communication linkage between brains," said the project's leader Miguel Nicolelis, a neurobiologist at Duke University, in a statement released Thursday.
He and his colleagues at Duke and ELS-IINN , a Brazilian neuroscience institute, constructed what they say is the first working "brain-to-brain" interface by surgically implanting electrodes in the brains of two groups of rats and wiring them into computers. The rat brain signals traveled through the wire, into the computer and then out and back into another rat's brain. The news comes just days after a video was posted of Nicolelis's TED talk on how he was able to use the brain signals of a rhesus monkey to control a robotic avatar.
"Direct communication linkage between brains."
For this new study, Nicolelis and his colleagues ran several experiments to see if the rats in one group, called "decoders," could process and respond to the sights and sense of touch originally experienced by the other group of rats, called "encoders." In one experiment, scientists trained both groups of rats to press a lever after they saw an LED light over it, rewarding them with a drink of water. But because the rats were linked, even when the light wasn't shining in the cage of a decoder rate, or when there were multiple lights shining, it would still push on the right lever about 70 percent of the time that its counterpart in the encoder group pushed the right lever.
In another experiment designed to test if tactile, or touch-based information could be shared over the system, the rats were all trained to use their whiskers to judge the width of a hole in front of them, poking their nose to the left if it was narrow and to the right if it was wide, also receiving water as a reward for the correct choice. Then the rats in the encoder were put in front of the hole while the rats in decoder group were not. Yet again, in about 65 percent of the tests, the rats in the decoder group were able to accurately judge the hole size from the encoder rats' brain signals. When they did, both sets of rats received a reward, encouraging them to work together across the neural network. In a final test of their system, the researchers linked one rat at Duke in North Carolina to another in Natal, Brazil, and found the rats were able to successfully complete the hole measuring test.
The scientists reported on their success in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, and said that their concept could lead to even greater advances in cooperative cognition. "We cannot even predict what kinds of emergent properties would appear when animals begin interacting as part of a brain-net," Nicolelis said in a statement. For now, the researchers plan to use their results to help develop robotic exoskeletons for paralyzed humans, a project called "Walk Again," which just received $20 million from the government of Brazil.