ONE PER CENT
Making senses We’re learning how to augment the brain. Andy Coghlan plugs in
22 | NewScientist | 19 March 2016
In an older, single-sensor their visual cortex, taking just version of the experiment, it 6 or 7 hours. Nicolelis thinks the took the rats one month to adapt. quicker learning comes from using With four sensors, it took them a part of the brain that already just three days. This speed-up interprets light. He is planning a could be because of the increased subsequent experiment in which amount of data reaching the rats’ the rats only get a reward if they brains (Journal of Neuroscience, “see” both parts of the spectrum – doi.org/bdb6). visual and infrared – at once. “This is a truly remarkable If it can be done with infrared, demonstration of the plasticity why not with ultraviolet light, of the mammalian brain,” says “It seems that nature Christopher James of the designed the adult University of Warwick, UK. Also, the rats’ new sense doesn’t mammalian brain with the possibility of upgrades” appear to diminish their original senses. “The results show that nature has apparently designed microwaves, or other inputs? the adult mammalian brain with “It would be a fusion, total vision,” the possibility of upgrades, and says Nicolelis. Nicolelis’s team is leading the “Now there’s no doubt that it’s way showing how to do it,” says easy for the mammalian brain, Andrea Stocco of the University even in adulthood, to adaptively of Washington in Seattle. use a novel, never-experienced Nicolelis says unpublished sense, such as infrared, GPS or data from a follow-up experiment magnetism,” says Yuji Ikegaya of shows that rats learn even faster the University of Tokyo in Japan. when the sensors feed directly into Nicolelis’s brain interfaces will probably find their first application in medicine. Filippa Lentzos of King’s College London points out that cochlear implants are already widely used. “We do a lot of this already, so whether completely new senses would be acceptable is a very interesting debate.” The idea is part of a trend that erodes the boundary between our brain and the outside world. Some people already have sensors and chips implanted in their flesh, and although implanting in the brain is dangerous, the benefits may outweigh the risks someday. “Is it safe, and are these capabilities we necessarily want to develop?” asks Lentoz. She sounds a note of caution: “Could it be abused by the military, to enhance battlefield performance or –Powers of perception– degrade enemy performance?” ■
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BRAINS get data about the world through senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. In a lab in North Carolina, a group of rats is getting an extra one. Thanks to brain implants, they have learned to sense and react to infrared light. This demonstrates the brain’s ability to process unfamiliar data – an early step towards augmenting the human brain. Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University School of Medicine is leading the experiment. His team implanted four clusters of electrodes in the rats’ barrel cortex – the part of the brain that handles whisker sensation. Each cluster is connected to an infrared sensor that outputs an electrical signal. To train and test the rats’ new sense, feeding stations with infrared lights were put at the corners of their cage. The rats got a reward for pressing a button when the station emitted an infrared signal.