Researchers Create Brain-to-Brain Interface in Rats

October 11, 2013

Back in 1995, the WB network released an episode of Pinky and the Brain where Brain discovers that all his previous plans for world domination were thwarted because of Pinky's lack of intelligence (which was likened to a mule hoof). Brain then builds a machine that increases his partner's intelligence to help him with several plans to take over the world. All those plans fail after the much smarter Pinky advises Brain that all his plans are mathematically unsound.

As ludicrous as it may seem, researchers from Duke University have done something similar. They've developed a system that allows rats to think together over an electronic connection, thereby increasing their intelligence.

The researchers took a pair of rats, implanted an array of super-small electrodes directly into each one's primary motor cortex (which is responsible for processing movement), and connected the implants with a small wire. The implants translated the neural signals of movement from one rat into electrical impulses, which were converted back into neural patterns for the receiving rat. The connection allowed the rats to pool their resources to solve challenges. The researchers developed the process through individual testing of the rodents to solve a series of challenges. The rats were rewarded when the challenges were accomplished correctly.

Testing involved dividing the rats into two groups: encoders and decoders. The encoder group received training involving two switches with an LED positioned over each one. When the rats pressed the switch with the corresponding LED lit, they were rewarded with water.

The process was repeated with the decoder group, which was outfitted with implants that stimulate muscle movement, rather than recording and transmitting them. Encoder and decoder rats were wired together and subjected to the same test, except this time only the encoder rat could see the LEDs light up. The brain signals were translated into a pattern of electrical stimulation and transmitted from the encoder to the decoder just before the encoder pressed the correct switch.

The researchers found that the decoder group successfully interpreted the transmission signals and pressed the correct switch 60-72 percent of the time. According to the researchers, the brain-to-brain connection worked in both directions, rather than just sending instructions from the encoder to the decoder. The testing rewarded each rat if both pressed the correct switch. If the encoder pressed the correct switch but the decoder did not, the encoder would receive only a partial reward of water; the decoder would receive nothing. The rats formed a "behavioral collaboration," or rather a biological network of sorts where they became increasingly familiar with each other's electrical patterns. Over time, this made it easier for them to press the correct switch -- the merging of minds.

Tests were also conducted over the Internet; rats separated by a few thousand miles produced the same results. The researchers hope the technology will be used one day to help restore motor control to paralyzed humans.

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