Technological telepathy: brain-to-brain communication between rats achieved

Telepathy has long been a subject of controversy in physical and psychological circles, offering the potential for removing the material and sensory walls between individuals, and allowing the direct transmission of information without using any of our known sensory channels or physical interactions. Although true telepathy still appears to be pseudoscience, futurists have long predicted that some form of technologically-based telepathy would eventually emerge ... and, it would appear, it has.

Researchers at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina in the U.S. report in the February 28, 2013 issue of Scientific Reports the successful wiring together of sensory areas in the brains of two rats. The result of the experiment is that one rat will respond to the experiences to which the other is exposed.

Neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis and his colleagues have been experimenting with direct electrical stimulation of sensory areas in an attempt to extend the reach of our senses. "Our previous studies with brain-machine interfaces had convinced us that the brain was much more plastic than we had thought," said Nicolelis. "In those experiments, the brain was able to adapt easily to accept input from devices outside the body and even learn how to process invisible infrared light detected by an artificial sensor. So, the question we asked was, if the brain could assimilate signals from artificial sensors, could it also assimilate information input from sensors from a different body."

To test this hypothesis, the researchers trained groups of rats to press the correct lever when a LED was turned on immediately above the lever. The reward was a sip of water, which tells you something about research budgets in this day and age.

Next, a pair of identically trained rats were wired together through arrays of 32 submicron microelectrodes inserted into the area of the cortex that processes sensor and motor information. The rats were then separated into two identical environments. One of the rats was designated the encoder, and was the rat that was exposed to a behavioral stimulus – a visual cue that told the encoder which lever to press to receive a sip of water. The cortical signals that were associated with the actions of the encoder rat were then passed on to the corresponding microelectrodes implanted in the sensorimotor cortex of the second, or decoder, rat.

The decoder rat did not receive any visual cues from its environment. As a result, for the decoder to press the proper lever to receive a reward (the same level as was cued and pressed by the encoder rat), it would have to respond to the cortical reaction of the encoder as transmitted via the brain to brain interface.

In trials, the decoder rat responded correctly to the cue seen by the encoder rat about 70 percent of the time, far better than expected for a random choice.

A crucially important learning process was also included in the study. When the encoder rat pressed the proper lever, it received a sip of water. When the decoder rat also pressed the proper lever, the encoder rat received a second sip. As a result, not only did the decoder rat have a stake in correctly interpreting the cortical reaction of the encoder rat, but the encoder rat also had a stake in altering its cortical reaction so that it was easier for the decoder to correctly interpret. Of course, they had no way of telling how to alter their cortical responses – this was a random search with feedback.

The same brain-to-brain interface was also tested by training pairs of rate to distinguish narrow openings from wide openings according to the sensation of their whiskers striking the edges of the hole. If the hole were narrow, both sets of whiskers would strike the opening, while for a wide hole only one set at a time could touch the edges of the hole. The rats were trained to poke a water port on the right side of the chamber if the aperture were wide, and a similar water port on the left if the aperture were narrow. The rats were divided into encoders and decoders as before. In this case, the decoder rats chose the correct water port about 65 percent of the time, again significantly above chance. Attempts to recreate the interface through intercontinental communication facilities also proved successful.

The Duke University group is pushing forward with additional experiments, most notably by trying to interconnect several rats at once. The main question is if emergent properties might come out of such a "brain-net," perhaps leading to mental abilities not possessed by any one rat. Professor Nicolelis even suggests that an "organic computer" capable of solving puzzles in a non-Turing way might emerge from a brain-net, which could avoid many of the limitations of traditional computing systems.

Whatever the future holds, what has already been accomplished is worth a certain amount of wonder. Imagine what it might feel like to be a unit in a multiform brain having many bodies. The benefits and potential dangers of such entities deserves contemplation.