Orbiting Tomorrow

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.

Healing Touch: How rerouting input to the brain could restore sight and improve prosthetics

The Science

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.

Source 1

Source 2


The Fiction

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…”.


One comment on “Healing Touch: How rerouting input to the brain could restore sight and improve prosthetics

  1. Chance
    February 24, 2013

    So one of the major sources of research and development to take an idea and make it happen is DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). These are the guys that tackle the impossible problems and find solutions more often than not. They created the internet for example. The DoD funds and runs many research projects. Now to take this idea and run with it an a practical real world sense. It could be a game changer like night vision goggles. NVG’s allow us to operate because we can use our sense of sight when the opponent can’t. Now imagine if we had the capability to see in another spectrum. To ‘see’ the ultraviolet or radio spectrum. You know, the ones that go through walls…
    But to take it to peaceful pursuits, how about the ability to have a radio (or cell phone) built in to your head. Because you can literally sense the radio waves. Nothing to carry around, not batteries or charging cables or accessories. (Maybe a GPS-type signal too??)
    How about the ability for a firefighter to see Through the Fire and Flames (sorry) to get to the trapped child upstairs?
    Now let’s take it underground(or undersea which is MUCH cooler. Literally and figuratively) if anyone has gone underground they know how easy it can be to lose your sense of direction. Now if you could sense the magnetic pull of the earth, you would never need a compass. Take it one step further, SONAR. Like a bat, if you could sense in detail enough the sounds or pressure differences in a tunnel, you could ‘feel’ the way to the surface.
    Now the last one I will bring up is a little more theoretical. But what if ESP is real? Imagine if we could build an EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) sensor. What happens if we find a way to ‘see’ in to an alternate realm or a supernatural existence? How cool would that be?

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This entry was posted on February 19, 2013 by in Health, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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