Read My Brain, You Rat!

A few months back, I came across an article in BBC Radio Science. A team of researchers at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina have connected the brains of lab rats, allowing one to communicate directly to another via electronic link. The wired brain implants sent sensory and motor signals from one rat to another, thus creating the first ever brain-to-brain interface.

The rat receiving the signal could correctly interpret the information. One replication of the experiment successfully linked a rat at Duke with one at the University of Natal in Brazil.

The information was transmitted in real time, but it took about 45 days of training participating rats, an hour a day. How well the decoder animal could decipher the brain input from the encoder rat to choose the correct lever? About 70% of the time.

The researchers first trained pairs of rats to solve a simple problem:  for the reward of a sip of water, rat had to press the correct lever when an indicator light above the lever switched on. Then the rodents who successfully completed the training were placed in separate chambers, their brains connected by arrays of microelectrodes — each roughly one hundredth the diameter of a human hair.  One rat was designated as the “encoder”. Once this rat pressed the correct lever, its brain activity was delivered as electrical stimulation into the brain of the second rat, designated the “decoder”.

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Both rats had the same types of levers in their chambers. The encoder rat sees the light and presses a lever to receive a reward. As it does so, the brain signal is sent to the decoder rat’s brain, which receives no other cues indicating which lever it should press to obtain a reward and has to rely on the cue transmitted from the encoder via the brain-to-brain interface. (Details of the work are outlined in the journal Scientific Reports.)

The idea could be extended to humans, researchers say. Once perfected, the concept might serve to develop a technique of  exchanging information across millions of people without using keyboards or voice recognition devices or the type of interfaces that are routinely used as I write and you read.

Great story, I thought then. I’ll make it into a sequel to  Rats! — the story of Sam and Gladys, the two lab rats, trying to mess up a scientific experiment — I’ve posted last June.

But as Russians say, don’t put off until tomorrow what can be put off until after the morrow. While I kept postponing writing about Sam and Gladys talking brain-to-brain, researchers achieved  yet another breakthrough.

An international team of scientists demonstrated what they call the first direct brain-to-brain communication, sending the words “hola” and “ciao” between two people thousands of miles apart.

“We were able to directly and non-invasively transmit a thought from one person to another, without them having to speak or write,” study co-author Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a neurologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and a Harvard Medical School professor, said in a written statement.

The study was published online Aug. 19 in the journal PLOS ONE.  It isn’t immediately known whether or not the human participants of the experiment were rewarded with a sip of water for good performance. o-BRAIN-TO-BRAIN-COMMUNICATION-570 People Talk ‘Brain-To-Brain’ For First Time Ever has a video of the experiment’s set up.

“We hope that in the longer term this could radically change the way we communicate with each other.” (Dr. Giulio Ruffini, a theoretical physicist at Starlab in Barcelona and co-author on the study, told AFP.)

Years ago, I worked with a man from India, a computer programmer. Once, matter-of-factly, he mentioned that he hadn’t exchanged a word with his wife in over two years, although the two of them were happy together, lived in the same house and communicated constantly, although not in a “normal” fashion but… telepathically. Both of them almost daily sought advise from their guru, a saintly man who never left Tamil Nadu, also telepathically. Just like Sam and Gladys… Go and figure.

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