You know what rats have always been missing? The ability to communicate and coordinate their actions through brain waves transmitted across hundreds of miles. Finally researchers at Duke University have remedied this longstanding problem by implanting electrodes into the brains of two isolated lab rats and training them to solve puzzles by feeding off of each other’s thought patterns. This experiment does serve a purpose other than showing rats the positive value of teamwork, as Duke neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis plans to use the technology to develop a brain powered exoskeleton that would allow a paralyzed person to strut out onto the soccer field and kick a ball at the next year’s opening ceremony for Brazil’s World Cup.
The study began by training the rats to correctly work through a sensory challenge. Via Wired:
The researchers implanted small electrode arrays in two regions of the rats’ brains, one involved in planning movements, and one involved in the sense of touch.
Then they trained several rats to poke their noses and whiskers through a small opening in the wall of their enclosure to determine its width. The scientists randomly changed the width of the opening to be either narrow or wide for each trial, and the rats had to learn to touch one of two spots depending on its width. They touched a spot to the right of the opening when it was wide and the spot on the left when it was narrow. When they got it correct, they received a drink. Eventually they got it right 95 percent of the time.
The next step was testing the same game on a group of rats with no method of trial and error to determine their correctness, so the experiment was run on a group of rats in an enclosure without openings in the wall. As expected, the rats got the problem right around 50 percent of the time. Then the researchers stimulated the second group of rats’ brains with signals sent from the trained rats. The second rats’ success rate went up to 60 or 70 percent. Finally, they changed the rules of the game so that the groups of rats were only rewarded when both got it right. The researchers found that where earlier the results remained consistent over time, the success rate, speed of decision, and intensity of signal all increased exponentially with these adjusted rules. This suggests that the rats were catching on to the factors that determined if they were rewarded, and learning to work together to accomplish their goal. “The animals compute by mutual experience,” Nicolelis observed. “It’s a computer that evolves, that’s not set by instructions or an algorithm.”
While this experiment is cool purely on its own merits, the results could be far reaching. Nicolelis aspires to use this technology to restore movement and language to stroke victims by sending signals to an intact part of the brain to retrain the injured areas. And if he can take this experiment from rats solving puzzles to a human being controlling an exoskeleton in under a year, who’s to say that’s not possible?