This seemingly science-fiction idea isn’t as far-fetched as you would believe. Scientists from Duke University have been experimenting with animal mind-melding and their efforts are paying off. They have been able to accomplish simple functions by having joint brains carry out these tasks.
Two studies were published in today’s issue of the journal Scientific Reports. These studies explain how sophisticated mind-networking is not only achievable, but can also obtain better results than individual brains would. The team of researchers working at Duke’s Center for Neuro-engineering used electrodes to connect the brains of animals. They proved that the lab animals they used (rats and monkeys) were capable of thought coordination, and in turn, of performing simple tasks together.
Miguel Nicolelis, the neurobiologist already renowned for having helped a 29-year-old paraplegic attend the 2014 World Cup in a brain-powered exoskeleton, is the leading study author. He and his colleagues have been experimenting with animal mind-melding for more than a decade, however, this is the first time that multiple brains were wired together to complete tasks.
Nicolelis and his team used macaque rhesus brains and implanted electrodes in strategic positions, so as to pick up electrical impulses from several hundreds of neurons. The team proceeded to connecting several monkeys to a computer and used computer generated imagery to present the test animals with a monkey arm.
Once connected to this brain-to-brain interface, the monkeys were encouraged to direct the computer-generated arm appearing before them on a screen. Whenever the animals managed to control the arm and hit a specific target, they would be rewarded with juice. It’s worth mentioning that the primates were all located in different rooms.
On a more funny note, Nicolelis notes that each individual monkey was given the juice of its preference. “We had to do a preference test beforehand,” he added.
Granted, monkeys cannot understand instructions such as “move the arm”. However, they can be trained to recognize the kind of thinking that causes such an arm to move and repeat that thinking in order to receive juice.
The team of researchers repeated the experiments using laboratory rats. Three or four adult rats would be connected to a similar interface and guided towards solving basic problems. By giving the rats certain stimulation cues (Nicolelis explains that a mild electrical stimulus would give the rats something resembling a tactile feeling), researchers taught thirsty rats that they could receive water by synchronizing their brain activity.
Until now, the team hasn’t fully understood how exactly the rats change their brain activity.
“The rats could divide tasks across animals, so their individual workload was much smaller,” Nicolelis said.
Though such experiments seem to sci-fi to have real-life applications, don’t allow yourself to be fooled. Nicolelis points out that there are tremendous applications. For instance, paralyzed patients could, in the future, be linked to healthy patients in order to re-learn the brain patterns required to move again. They could also be instructed on how to move robotic limbs.
Hopefully, such technology will have tremendous benefits, especially if done non-invasively as opposed to current day necessities of introducing implants (as the team had to do).
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