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.