Super Rats Gain 'Sixth Sense' with Brain Implant (Video)

First Posted: Feb 14, 2013 08:44 AM EST

Ever wonder what it would be like to have a sixth sense? A few lab rats got the chance. Scientists fitted the lab animals with a device that allowed them to perceive infrared light--something that normal rats cannot see.

The findings, published in Nature Communications, implanted microscopic electrodes in the part of the rat's brain that processes tactile information. These electrodes were then wired up to an infrared detector. This sensor was able to "see" infrared light and then turn that light into electrical pulses that correspond to how intense the light was and where it was located. These signals were transmitted into the part of the brain that is usually used to sense touch in the whiskers.

When the six rats were first tested, they didn't seem to know how to cope with the new sensation. Researchers placed them in a box with three doors--behind one was water which researchers marked with an infrared light. The rats, at first, checked the doors at random, though they would sometimes scratch their faces when the infrared light stimulated their whiskers. In only four weeks, though, the rats learned to swing their heads to seek the infrared light and chose the door that they wanted.

These findings have huge implications for future research. The same technology could allow a human with a damaged visual cortex to regain their sight through a similar device implanted in another part of the brain. In addition, it shows that it's possible to "improve" what can normally be sensed.

"The meaning is that the brain is not limited by the transducers that exist in our body," said Miguel Nicolelis, one of the researchers who led the experiment in an interview with TechNewsDaily. "We can actually allow the brain to incorporate new information from the external world."

Currently, though, it will be quite some time before these types of experiments move onto human testing. Nicolelis estimates that it could take anywhere from years to decades.

Want to check out the rats in action? Watch the video below.

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