Nicolelis believes this opens the possibility of building an “organic computer” that links the brains of multiple animals into a single central nervous system, which he calls a “brain-net.” Are you a little creeped out yet? In a statement, Nicolelis adds:
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.
That sounds far-fetched. But Nicolelis’ lab is developing quite the track record of “taking science fiction and turning it into science,” says Ron Frostig, a neurobiologist at UC-Irvine who was not involved in the rat study. “He’s the most imaginative neuroscientist right now.” (Frostig made it clear he meant this as a complement, though skeptics might interpret the word less charitably.)
Nicolelis previously made headlines in 2008 when he used brain signals from a monkey in North Carolina to operate a pair of robotic legs in Japan. The ultimate goal is to allow paralyzed people to use their minds to control robotic limbs as if they were their own appendages.
The potential applications of brain-to-brain interfaces for humans aren’t entirely clear. Few people today are eager to have electrodes implanted in their brains. And the brain signals that the rats transmitted were relatively simplistic, so there’s no guarantee that the technology would ever work for the transmission of anything as complex as abstract thoughts or memories.
Still, Frostig says the rat study creates exciting possibilities for future research. “We can’t yet say how this will help people. But this is the first time that it’s been proven that something like this can be done at all. I think it’s wonderful.”