Lab rats 'acquire sixth sense' using an implant into the brain that did not alter normal function.

US researchers have effectively given laboratory rats a "sixth sense" using an implant in their brains.

An experimental device allowed the rats to "touch" infrared light - which is normally invisible to them. The rats had no reduction in their ability to "feel" things as a result.  Scientists at Duke University suited the rats with an infrared detector wired up to microscopic electrodes that were implanted in the part of their brains that processes tactile information.

The researchers say that, in theory at least, a human with a damaged visual cortex might be able to regain sight through a device implanted in another part of the brain.  The finding that neuro-plasticity exists within the brain is a very important step to creating an artificial one.

Lead author Miguel Nicolelis said this was the first time a brain-machine interface has augmented a sense in adult animals. In addition,  “This is the first paper in which a neuro-prosthetic device was used to augment function” Eric Thomson from Duke University responded.

The experiment also shows that a new sensory input can be interpreted by a region of the brain that normally does something else without changing the original functioning of that part of the brain.

"We could create devices sensitive to any physical energy," said Prof Nicolelis, from the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. "It could be magnetic fields, radio waves, or ultrasound. We chose infrared initially because it didn't interfere with our electro-physiological recordings."  His implication is that in the future, Cyber-nauts could plug in for extra sensory abilities, to augment the human system.  The cyborg future just got a whole lot brighter.


Meta-wire the Brain

Researcher Eric Thomson continued: "The philosophy of the field of brain-machine interfaces has until now been to attempt to restore a motor function lost to lesion or damage of the central nervous system. "This is the first paper in which a neuro-prosthetic device was used to augment function - literally enabling a normal animal to acquire a sixth sense."

In the experiments, the researchers created a test chamber with three light sources that could be switched on randomly.

They taught the rats to choose the active light source by poking their noses into a port to receive a sip of water as a reward. They then implanted the micro-electrodes, each about a tenth the diameter of a human hair, into the animals\' brains. These electrodes were attached to the infrared detectors.

The researchers then put the animals back into the test chamber. At first, the rats scratched at their faces, indicating that they were interpreting the lights as a feeling of touch. But after a month, the animals learned to associate the signal in their brains with the infrared source. Soon, they began to search actively for the signal, eventually achieving perfect scores in tracking and identifying the correct location of the invisible light source.

One key finding was that enlisting the touch cortex to detect infrared light did not reduce its ability to process touch signals.

The cells maintained the original ability, and incorporated the new 'feeling sense' as stimuli.  This has great implications for trans-humanists, because the need for healthy brain tissue is key for continuance of the life-form, any live brain matter could be re-wired ad still retain function.  Better than any known RAM chip out there that has been disclosed so far.

The results of the study were published in Nature Communications journal.