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It’s Not Telepathy: Real-Time Brain-to-Brain Communication in Rats

The laboratory of Dr. Miguel Nicolelis at the Duke University Medical Center is known for pioneering studies in neuroprosthesis.  Previous research breakthroughs from the Nicolelis lab include training monkeys to “move and feel” objects using only the thoughts in their brains (O’Doherty et al., 2011) ) and defining neural networks responsible for precise movements, known as neuronal population coding.

Recently Dr. Nicolelis has published a study that claims to “link” the brains of two rats, so that one rat’s thoughts cause another rat to perform a specific task.  This is accomplished through the construction of a “brain-to-brain interface.”  The experiment consists of one designated “decoder” rat and one “encoder” rat.  For the motor task, all rats were initially trained to press a lever with a lit LED above it with access to water as reinforcer.  Once trained, rats were assigned to be in either the encoder or the decoder group.  Encoder rats were implanted with an array of 32 recording microelectrodes in their primary motor cortex.  Decoder rats were implanted with an array of micro-stimulating electrodes in their primary motor cortex.  The decoder rats were then trained to interpret different trains of stimulating pulses, given to them via the micro-stimulating electrodes; one train of pulses meant press the left lever, the other train of pulses meant press the right lever.

Finally, the full experiment:  the encoder rat performs his task by pressing the correct lever (left or right) in response to the LED cue.  This decision is then transformed and transmitted to the decoder rat’s cortex via micro-stimulation.  The decoder rat must then press the correct lever (the same one the encoder rat pressed) for a water reinforcer.

The big news is that this is the first time a direct real-time channel has been created to exchange behavioral information between the brains of two animals.    They went to great lengths to ensure that the brain-brain electrical link was the only route of information exchange between the two animals:  one rat was in North Carolina and the other rat was in Brazil.

The authors suggest a future for the technology in thought-induced group synchronization: “Animal groups could synchronize behaviors following neuronal-based cues.”  Detractors say the current study is “simplistic” and that the percentage of correct decoder rat responses was barely above chance.   The work has also raised some ethical discussions, leading some to wonder where the technique could lead.

What do you think?

Does this study point to a future of technology linking neural activity in freely behaving animals?  Are you convinced?  Will this work assist in assisting people with paralysis move objects such as prosthetics using brain signals alone?  Let us know!




Further Reading:

Pais-Vieira M, Lebedev M, Kunicki C, Wang J, Nicolelis MA.  A Brain-to-Brain Interface for Real-Time Sharing of Sensorimotor InformationSci Rep. 2013 Feb 28; 3:1319.

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