By Will Oremus
It’s not exactly rat telepathy. Let’s call it a computer-mediated rat mind-meld.
In a lab in Brazil, a rat faced an opening in the wall of its enclosure, and two levers. If it detected with its whiskers that the opening was narrow, it was supposed to press one lever. If the opening was wide, it was supposed to press the other. Choose the right lever, and it would be rewarded with a sip of water.
With practice, the rat learned to press the correct lever 95 percent of the time. Then came the remarkable part.
Researchers implanted one set of electrodes in the brain of the rat in Brazil, and another set of electrodes in the brain of a second rat at Duke University. Via an Internet connection, they set it up so that a signal from the brain of the rat in Brazil would be sent, in simplified form, directly to the brain of the rat in North Carolina. The rat in North Carolina also faced two levers, but had no information to go on as to which one to press — except for the signal coming from the first rat’s brain.
The test: Could the rat in North Carolina press the correct lever, based on the width of the opening in the enclosure of the rat in Brazil? Six or seven times out of 10, it did.
The study, published this week in the open-access journal Scientific Reports, appears to be the first to allow animals to communicate via a brain-to-brain computer interface. The researchers, led by neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis at Duke, say the feedback actually went both ways: When the second rat chose the correct lever, the first rat got an additional reward, which apparently encouraged it to send a clearer and stronger brain signal the next time. If that’s true, it would amount to not only communication, but a form of cooperation.