These days it's hard to tell what the true breakthroughs are. But I'm pretty sure when scientists figure out a way to connect two brains to each other so that two separate beings can communicate and control each other, we can all take a step back and gawk. It sounds like science just invented telepathy.
A team of researchers at the Duke University Medical Center just published details of their so-called "brain-to-brain interface" — the world's first — in Nature. The scientists had been experimenting with electrodes implanted in rats' brains that communicated with a computer. The electrodes would effectively enable the rats to "touch" invisible infrared light. That's cool enough, but then they got creative.
"Until recently we used to record this brain activity and send it to a computer … and the [computer] tells us what the animal is going to do," said Professor Miguel Nicolelis, a daring neuroscientist and head of the research team. "So we reasoned, if we can do that with a computer, could another brain do that?"
So they did it. The researchers successfully connected two rats' brains, albeit with wires, and enabled the two separate beings to think in congress. The test was pretty simple. Each rat was placed in a separate enclosure so that they couldn't see each other but were still connected via brain cable. The cable was made up of tiny wires, each a hundredth the diameter of a human hair, that poked into the part of the cortex that controls motor movements. Inside each enclosure was a series of levers with lights above each one.
The rats were given a very simple challenge: when the light above a lever lit up, pulling it and would yield a reward. But one of the rats didn't get to see the lights and instead depended on the brain signals of the other rat. When that rat pulled the correct lever, its brain signal were sent to the other one who had to guess the lever. It didn't work right away, but after hours of training, the rats achieved a 70 percent success rate.
Okay, so this is not exactly science fiction come true, but it's a start. This type of research bears tremendous implications for neuroscience, and makes up the foundation of research into how we can cure dozens of diseases, as well as paralysis. And Nicolelis, the mastermind behind the telepathic rat experiment, is on the cutting edge of it all.
Using the same kinds of techniques as he did with the rats, Nicolelis is attempting to build a brain-controlled exoskeleton that will enable paraplegics to stand, walk and even run. "We’re getting close to making wheelchairs obsolete," Nicolelis told Wired recently. Close enough that he's planning on debuting his brain-controlled exoskeleton at the first game of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where he wants a paralyzed person to use it to walk out on to the field.
If and when that happens, it'll be another "holy shit" breakthrough moment. Until then, I'm still impressed with the telepathic rats.