One Giant Leap toward Science Fiction: Neurological Breakthrough in Linking Two Rats’ Brains

Alison K. Lanier

Forget the Vulcan Mind Meld. In what many headlines are comparing to a Spock-like telepathy, scientists at Duke University have taken neurological research to a new level by essentially transmitting data from one rat brain to another.

Using electrodes planted in two rodents’ brains, rats in separate cages were able to essentially transfer information between their neural pathways. In a report published in the February Scientific Reports journal titled, “A Brain-to-Brain Interface for Real-Time Sharing of Sensorimotor Information,” the researchers describe that, “These results demonstrated that a complex system was formed by coupling the animals’ brains, suggesting that [brain-to-brain interfaces] can enable dyads or networks of animal’s brains to exchange, process, and store information.” Miguel Nicolelis, who led the project, told Wired that, “We basically created a computational unit out of two brains.”

How the Two Brains were Linked and the Outcome

Nicolelis told The New York Times that the first question he asked was, “Could we fool the brain? Could we make the brain process signals from another body?” According to Engadget’s report, the Nicolelis lab implanted small electrodes in the “encoder” rat’s brain, which, simplistically, records the neural-firing that leads to motor action and transforms it into a translatable “message.” This thought package, recorded by the on-site rat in Brazil, is then transmitted via the Internet to Duke University’s lab rat in North Carolina, who is then better able to perform the same motor task. Two small electrode arrays accomplish this link, one implanted in the encoder rat’s brain in the sections that control motor function and one in the section related to sensory perception.

Nvate neurological research by Miguel Nicolelis, mind control, brain-controlled artificial limbs

The image shows the flow of information from the encoder rat through the various channels to the decoder rat. Credit: Scientific Reports

Wired describes the decisive experiment, which appears relatively unspectacular when you think that it has confirmed a brand of functional telepathy. One group of rats, which received rewards when they succeeded in performing the tasks correctly, performed a simple process, poking their noses through one of two differently-sized holes, correctly 95 percent of the time. These rats learned the task over time, as the width of the holes were randomly changed and the animals learned which hole to select in order to receive their food reward.

Untrained rats, with no information to go on but the prepackaged signals from another rat’s brains, encoded and transmitted, attempted the task. They had an unspectacular but highly revealing success rate of 60 to 70 percent. While this success rate alone is not astonishing, Nicolelis stated that it shows that the rats are neurologically communicating and collaborating to achieve “trained” results.

Challenging the Boundaries of Mind Control

This is far from a short-distance connection. The process of mental collaboration functioned when rats were not only in separate cages but on separate continents. The experiment linked the brains of two subject rats that were thousands of kilometers apart, Wired reported. One rat in a lab in North Carolina and one in Brazil successfully transferred data for one rat to help the other rat complete its task.

This revolutionary tech is part of the scientific forefront on which Nicolelis and his lab, which frequently gets press for challenging the boundaries of the possibilities for medical science, operate. Wired separately reported on what it dubs a “Wildly Ambitious Quest” to build a thought-controlled exoskeleton that would allow a paralyzed person to, for instance, kick a soccer ball at Brazil’s 2014 World Cup, which is precisely the demonstration that Nicolelis has in mind for his science-fiction scope project. At the present moment that mind-reading technology is being tested in the brains of monkeys, but Nicolelis stated that, “We’re getting close to making wheelchairs obsolete.

Nvate neurological research by Miguel Nicolelis, mind control, brain-controlled artificial limbs

Credit: dream designs

Still, some onlookers are not convinced of the mind meld technology with the evidence as it has been presented. Bijan Pesaran of New York University, while he calls the process a “pretty cool idea,” according to Wired, feels that the results could be more convincing in terms of indicating that the effect that Nicolelis claims is really what is going on. “If you could see them learning to do it better and faster, then I’d really be impressed,” Pesaran said.

Medical Application

The potential outcome of this technology has the potential to feed damaged brains with these pre-packaged signals in order to facilitate brain functions. Again, Pesaran has something to say about that; theoretically, why would a second brain be needed? If the pre-recorded patterns of neural firing exist—which they do, through such previous medical technology as brain-controlled artificial limbs or Nicolelis’ own previous work in simulating sensory perception—why would a second brain be needed at all? Couldn’t a “clean,” computer-generated pattern be fed to the damaged brain instead?

Despite the challenges to the tech’s application, Nicolelis’ work is undoubtedly, in Pesaran’s own words, “cool,” and this work seems to be picking up both press and momentum. From engineering continent-to-continent mind melds to promising the obsolesce of the wheelchair, further science fiction made fact will hopefully be forthcoming from the imaginations at the Duke University lab.

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