Brains of Two Rats “Linked” Half Way Across The World

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Now neuroscientists are practicing telepathy. In a recent study, the brain signals of a rat performing a task in Brazil were transmitted to another rat in North Carolina to help it perform the same task. While the demonstration is certainly impressive, fellow neuroscientists have already begun voicing doubt as to how useful such a brain-to-brain connection could be.

And it’s more than a little ironic that one of the world leaders in brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) continues to push the technology to its limits, all the while thinking predictions that we will one day be able to recreate the human brain are a “bunch of hot air”.

Miguel Nicolelis, originally from Brazil but now at Duke University, made use of his ties by coupling the rats all the way from Brazil to North Carolina. The techniques he used are nothing new: scientists routinely use electrodes to record or stimulate brain activity in rodents. Nicolelis’ lab itself has pushed BMI technology in the past. A 2011 experiment monkeys controlled a virtual arm, and in 2008 they controlled a robot walking on a treadmill – the monkey was at Duke, the robot in Japan. What the current experiment achieves is a combination of recording and stimulation to produce, according to the researchers, the first brain-to-brain interface.

MIguel Nicolelis doesn't believe the Singularity will happen, but you wouldn't know it from the awesome BMI research he constantly churns out. [Source:]

Miguel Nicolelis doesn’t believe the Singularity will happen, but you wouldn’t know it from the awesome BMI research he constantly churns out. [Source:]

With recording electrodes implanted in its brain, the rat in Brazil was presented two levers and taught to press the lever above which a light turned on. If it picked the correct lever it received a drink reward. After some training the rat was able to press the correct lever 95 percent of the time. Each time it performed the task correctly, its recorded brain signals were sent over the Internet to Duke where they were decoded to a pattern of electrical stimulation in the brain of the second rat. This decoder rat was presented the same choice of levers but did not receive any light cues – it relied solely on the signals sent from the encoder rat to make its choice. Even without cues, it chose the correct lever 70 percent of the time.

In a second experiment the encoder rat had to use its whiskers to discern the size of an opening in its cage wall. If the opening was narrow it was supposed to poke its nose through a hole on the left, if the opening was wide it would poke its nose through a hole on the right. Again, its “correct choice” brain signals allows the decoder rat halfway across the world to also make the correct choice even though it was given no wall opening to discriminate. It chose the correct hole 65 percent of the time, which statistical analysis showed to be better than chance.

The brain signals sent from the encoder rat weren’t so explicit as “Hey, it’s the one on the right!” Rather, the encoder’s motor cortex, a part of the brain that controls movement, became more active when it pushed the correct lever or poked its nose through the right hole. That increase in neuronal firing was sent to the decoder rat’s motor cortex where neurons there were likewise stimulated. The researchers then trained the decoder rat to push the correct lever in response to this stimulation.

And communication didn’t only flow in one direction. In an attempt to train the encoder rat to send clearer signals to the decoder rat, a reward was given to the encoder rat if the decoder rat got the task right. The result was loud-and-clear telepathy as the signal-to-noise ratio of the encoder’s signal improved.

The study was published recently in Nature. Here’s short demonstration of what cross-world rat telepathy looks like.

[Source: BeyondBoundariesBook via YouTube]

Aside from probably the coolest parlor trick you’ve ever seen, what use could this brain-to-brain interface (BTBI) serve? The authors write, “…by coupling the animals’ brains…BTBIs can…enable networks of animal’s brains to exchange, process, and store information and, hence, serve as the basis for studies of novel types of social interaction and for biological computing devices.”

That’s right, Nicolelis and colleagues are attempting nothing short of creating a biological computer. But while quick to acknowledge the group’s numerous and triumphant contributions to BMI field, some fellow neuroscientists are more conservative about the study’s implications.

Lee Miller, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, told The Scientist, “I’m afraid one would have to be forgiven, on reading the current account, with its references to, a ‘grid of multiple reciprocally interconnected brains…solving heuristic problems deemed non-computable by a general Turing-machine,’ for mistaking it for a poor Hollywood science fiction script.”

But who knows? If we were to be naively optimistic about technology – as Nicolelis himself apparently thinks Singularitarians are – we could envision a day when a thousand brains coupled through BTBIs could solve a task through the cumulative progressions spurred by millions of minuscule hunches – a kind of instantaneous, subconscious crowdsourcing. And yet here he is being accused of exaggerating the implications of this own work.

Yes, brain-to-brain computers do sound like something out of Hollywood. But Miller and other critics may want to recall the words of Michael Faraday, one of the founding fathers of electromagnetic theory. In 1816, following a lecture, a woman asked, “But, Professor Faraday, even if the effect you explained was obtained, what is the use of it?” Faraday’s reply, so it’s told, was, “Madam, will you tell me the use of a newborn baby?”

Discussion — 24 Responses

  • DigitalGalaxy March 11, 2013 on 4:09 pm

    Sigh…yes, yes, this is all very interesting. The date is the year 2013.

    WHY are we still abusing animals for research purposes???

    The proper course of action is to get two willing human test subjects, inform them of all the risks, compensate them according to the risk, and then perform the experiment.

    We have computers we can link together for research. There is no need to cause suffering to animals just so we can experiment with brain interfaces. Lets link two simulated brains together for research purposes, and leave rats alone.

    What was the point of the experiment, anyways? To isolate brainwaves, then encode them digitally, then insert them into another test subject? How is that advancing the bounds of science? Last time I checked, encoding brain waves digitally was little different than encoding other electronic waves digitally…not that difficult, and not all that enlightening.

    And “creating a network of rat brain computers”? What? We have 7 petaflop (that’s right, 7 petaflops…that’s a lot of 0s after the 7) supercomputers, and we ‘re trying to create networks of extremely slow brains for…what purpose, exactly? If this scientist really wanted to add to the world’s computing power, he could have bought a few powerful desktop computers and hooked them up to folding@home.

    It’s time for a ban on animal testing, barring only life-saving medications. Then maybe we could focus on real research, and not inane animal torture that give us dubious results and bogs down our culture morally.

    • Matthew DigitalGalaxy March 11, 2013 on 4:20 pm

      it’s okay for life-saving medications? it’s ok to experiment on people? (we’re animals too) … i agree with the simulation part, but our simulations are not as accurate/realistic/informative as biology yet. just some thoughts.

      • Matthew Matthew March 11, 2013 on 4:24 pm

        and did you really experiment on the difference between how encoding brain waves digitally is a little different than encoding other electronic waves digitally? sometimes the experimentation is far detached from any way a delitantte could imagine it being applicable.

        • DigitalGalaxy Matthew March 11, 2013 on 4:50 pm

          Those are good thoughts, the questions surrounding animal “research” are complicated ones, and more discussion is better! Animals are just as aware as you or me, and just as capable of feeling pain. Their intelligence might not be anywhere near ours, but they can still feel.

          I think you could make an argument for animal torture experiments if the result is life-saving medication. Not everyone agrees. I don’t think you can justify it for anything less than life-saving treatments.

          I think that experiments on willing, informed human test subjects who are well compensated for their risk is acceptable. You can’t ask a rat for consent to invade their brain with brain waves from some other random rat halfway across the world, but you could ask a human do to that, and receive a yes or no answer. Even if the answer was “no” 98% of the time, you might get that 2% of people who might think the experience would be intriguing, or the results of the research worth the risk, and they would say “yes”. Then, not only do you have an experiment which will give you the results you actually want (animal results often do not pan out on humans), but you are not causing suffering and harm. If the experiment goes bad, the subject a) knows the risk going in, and b) gets extra compensation. Lower animals cannot know risk and cannot do anything about it except just sit in their cage and take the abuse. Human subjects can know the risks, stop the experiment if they are uncomfortable, and see the benefit of rewards.

          And I agree that encoding brain waves digitally might be more difficult than I made it seem; there might be much more to it than an armchair observer like me sees! I was just frustrated about the rats, and perhaps overreacted. You are correct!

    • Scalpinock Mkii DigitalGalaxy March 14, 2013 on 2:34 pm

      While I agree with you, my reasons for human experimentation are very different: we need to test things on the specie we plan to use them. We want (trans/post)human telepathy, not (trans/post)rat telepathy.

      • DigitalGalaxy Scalpinock Mkii March 16, 2013 on 6:24 pm

        Well said. There’s no point in harming animals when the research may turn out to be useless when applied to humans.

    • NRT DigitalGalaxy March 18, 2013 on 12:20 pm

      Ugh. If you don’t understand that technologies first must be proven in animals before they’re applied to humans, then there’s just no getting through to you. I don’t like the idea of causing harm to animals, but it’s an absolute necessity for scientific progress. So – the choice is to either halt all meaningful scientific research immediately and eventually go extinct, or continue conducting thoughtful research in the most humane way possible and hope that these breakthroughs someday lead us to a point where we’re no longer dependent upon biological research.

      • DigitalGalaxy NRT March 18, 2013 on 3:08 pm

        I’m confused about exactly what research you are referring to: research in computer chips or space travel is in no way dependent upon harming animals. We can research those fully without torturing a single animal. Science can progress in physics, geology, electronics, and even robot-human replacement limbs and organs. These are the things that will keep us from going extinct, I think!

        I assume you are speaking about the biomedical sector; where animal research is most used. I believe that you will find we already are approaching the point where we have surpassed the need for animal torture; my computer is running the folding@home project, which is a distributed supercomputing network that allows scientists studying biological molecules to run interaction simulations of protein folding; a major component in developing new medicines and conducting new research. In this way, we can refine our models, and simply run simulations on supercomputers instead of actually inflicting pain on rats or monkeys.

        Check it out; you don’t need a super fast computer to contribute to folding@home. We don’t need to stop scientific progress to proceed morally!

    • Isaac p. DigitalGalaxy March 24, 2013 on 1:52 pm

      What’s wrong with experimenting on rats?

  • Jan-Willem Bats March 12, 2013 on 3:56 am

    Miguel Nicolelis reminds me of Richard Smalley, who resorted to scare mongering (not rational argument) in an effort to downplay Drexlarian nanotech.

  • sinkskink March 12, 2013 on 4:40 am

    I can’t imagine anything more invasive to the individual and being hooked up to another’s thoughts and being forced to perform tasks for water. I don’t think this is an overreaction, we need to demonstrate a higher moral standard.

    • DigitalGalaxy sinkskink March 12, 2013 on 8:47 pm

      I fully agree! Well said!

  • Eugen Groh March 12, 2013 on 7:17 am

    …they are rats.

    Aren’t you anthropomorphing those little mammals a bit too much? If they weren’t in a cage being experimented on by at least some ethic standards they’d suffer simmilar if not worse perils out there at the “hands” or claws and teeth of an indifferent nature.

    Their use for science is indisputable, I’d be against it if this kind of experimenting served no purpose – but alas, it does.

    • DigitalGalaxy Eugen Groh March 12, 2013 on 8:56 pm

      I don’t think its anthropomorphizing rats at all to claim that they are cognizant, have feelings, and can experience pain and horror, even if they cannot use language or higher reasoning skills.

      It’s true that out in the woods, they would face either a) a quick death by a predator, or b) starvation eventually. That doesn’t excuse human experimentation through torture.

      “Oh, well, it doesn’t matter that I shot that guy, he was just going to die anyways” is NOT a valid moral argument when applied to humans. It does not apply to lower animals, either.

      Yes, it is “useful” to science to torture these animals. It’s not just done for fun or sadism, it is done with a research goal in mind. But, we as a society are beginning to become too ethically advanced to keep inflicting needless suffering on beings which can experience pain. At some point, the very real ethical cost outweighs the very real scientific gain. Computer models, even if less accurate than nature, carry no ethical cost, and are getting better day by day.

      If the experiment did not involve harm or torture, I’d say go for it. But, experiments that do should be banned, in my opinion.

      • Juninho Coletti DigitalGalaxy March 12, 2013 on 9:58 pm

        This guy has to be funded by DARPA.

        • DigitalGalaxy Juninho Coletti March 12, 2013 on 10:09 pm

          A disturbing thought…

      • Isaac p. DigitalGalaxy March 24, 2013 on 2:02 pm

        Wow, and I liked this site until i found out how there were so many dicks who think that rats are just as important as people. RATS!!!!!! It’s just a stupid animal, It could ether live in the wild and experience a lot more pain, live at the expense on humans by eating grain, OR…. It could actually have a purpose!!!!!!!!! Seriously, I’s a freaken rat, not a person.

    • Isaac p. Eugen Groh March 24, 2013 on 1:54 pm

      YES, EXACTLY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Valdas Virbilas March 15, 2013 on 5:25 am

    Ha. This spectacle in rats Indicates a very small method if it is compared with options of telepathy of „Kibernetika“ Way (6 years experience of effective telepathy). And this your commotion is almost laughable. More details of mentioned competetive telepathy‘s methods are here

    • DigitalGalaxy Valdas Virbilas March 16, 2013 on 6:21 pm

      Telepathy is a spiritual phenomena, and thus it is not reproducible at will, unlike this rat experiment.

      Physical substances, like neurons and electrons, tend to behave nicely under scientific experimentation. Spiritual things do not cooperate so easily!