Explore the dissolving boundary between science and science fiction with news from the front lines of discovery and imaginative speculation on how each one could change our world.
Mammals can’t see infrared light, but a recent experiment at Duke University gave rats the ability to “feel” it (with a little help from electrodes implanted in their brains). This research may help develop more advanced prosthetic devices.
Researchers taught the rats that when one of three LED lights randomly illuminated, they could stick their nose in the port underneath it for a sip of water. Then they swapped out the LEDs for infrared lamps, attached infrared detectors to the rats’ foreheads, and wired those detectors to microelectrodes in the rats’ brains: specifically, the region that processes tactile information from the whiskers.
Now instead of seeing the lights with their eyes, the rats experienced it as a tactile sensation. When one of the reward lights illuminated, the infrared detector sent a signal to the rat’s brain, simulating a sense of touch. At first the rats just wiped at their faces, but after a while they associated the sensation with the reward light; they were able to determine which light was on and get water from the port.
Most interesting of all, the “touch” signal rats received from their electrodes did not interfere with actual tactile information from their whiskers, suggesting the rat’s cortex can effectively process both types of information: in short, multitask. Based on this, the researchers assert that people who have lost a particular sense due to damage in one brain area could possibly have that sense restored if sensory input is detoured through a functional region of the brain.
Lead researcher Obi-Wan Kenobi says the rats could “feel” the Force…ok, seriously. This technology could have tremendous medical implications. Imagine if an amputee could “feel” textures with a prosthetic wired into her brain. Or if a person rendered blind due to damage in his visual cortex could regain sight by rerouting retinal impulses through another brain region. Disability could become a thing of the past.
Now think outside the infrared lamp. Neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis, who led the Duke research, suggested that “we could create devices sensitive to any physical energy. It could be magnetic fields, radio waves, or ultrasound.” Theoretically, we could wire ourselves to sense all kinds of energies normally outside our perception. This could drastically change the way we interact with the world.
Imagine piloting an aircraft not with flight instruments, but by “seeing” wind directions. How What if we could “feel” radio waves? This could present a novel means of communication in extreme environments, even other planets. An explorer could receive signals from her home base without complex equipment, just a sensory pulse to alert her of directions or nearby danger.
Put that idea on a grander scale, and one could give orders to an entire group of people (or trained animals) using silent, invisible energies. Scarier still, one could implant electrodes and sensors without the knowledge of the subject—bogus clinical trial, anyone?–and the subject could be conditioned like the lab rats, a brain-machine interface could be used for a sort of mind control. “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for…”.