If two heads are better than one, then Miguel Nicolelis is developing a super-head. Or, perhaps, a super-computer. And, it seems, he’s not content with only two.
After successfully linking two rats’ brains together and having the animals communicate and collaborate together on simple tasks, Nicolelis--a well known neuroscientist at Duke University--said he wanted to get more animals connected. "Basically, we are creating what I call an organic computer," he said.
"We cannot even predict what kinds of emergent properties would appear when animals begin interacting as part of a 'brain-net.' In theory, you could imagine that a combination of brains could provide solutions that individual brains cannot achieve by themselves."
Which sounds like crazy talk--except that researchers really have wired rats’ brains together. A recent paper in the journal Scientific Reports describes a series of (apparently successful) experiments.
First, two rats were trained to press a lever when a light went on in their cage. Press the right lever, and they would get a reward--a sip of water. The animals were then split in two: one cage had a lever with a light, while another had a lever without a light. When the first rat pressed the lever, the researchers sent electrical activity from its brain to the second rat. It pressed the right lever 70% of the time (more than half).
In another experiment, the rats seemed to collaborate. When the second rat didn’t push the right lever, the first rat was denied a drink. That seemed to encourage the first to improve its signals, raising the second rat’s lever-pushing success rate.
Finally, to show that brain-communication would work at a distance, the researchers put one rat in an cage in North Carolina, and another in Natal, Brazil. Despite noise on the Internet connection, the brain-link worked just as well--the rate at which the second rat pushed the lever was similar to the experiment conducted solely in the U.S.
Nicolelis is a pioneer of devices allowing the paralyzed to move machines with their thoughts. Last year, he explained, in a TED talk how a monkey could control a robot arm in Japan. Now, he is trying to develop a robotic exoskeleton enabling paraplegics to walk. He’s promised the invention in time for the next soccer World Cup, in 2014.
No doubt, the multi-rat "brain-net" will arrive some time after that. You’ve been warned.