Duke University researchers have wired together two sets of brains to create networks: one made up of monkeys and the other of rats. It’s a practical step towards a theoretical goal of helping stroke victims.
The project was led by Miguel Nicolelis, who previously worked on a project resulting in a paraplegic man using a thought-controlled exoskeleton to take several steps during the World Cup opening ceremony last summer.
Despite some ambiguous headlines, the researchers didn’t actually wire together a monkey to a rat. Instead they ran two separate projects exploring the same idea of whether it was possible to pool together brain power. They call the result a Brainnet, in effect an organic computer.
The study with the rats looked at the wider issue of animals synchronizing their thoughts, a precursor to them combining on a task. After implanting electrodes into the brains of four rats, the researchers sent an identical signal and then monitored the responses, rewarding the rats with water as and when they produced the same responses — in other words, were thinking the same thing. Eventually the rats managed to work together to the point that they could earn the water 87 percent of the time.
The researchers then modified the experiment so that only the first rat knew the “correct” brain activity response to earn the water. This rat was then able to train a second rat to produce the same response, with the second rat then training a third rat.
To explore the idea in a little more sophisticated manner, the researchers developed the experiment with rhesus macaque monkeys. Here the monkeys didn’t simply have the right thoughts and get the reward. Instead they were shown a computer animation of a monkey arm and a ball. One monkey’s thoughts controlled the arm’s horizontal movements and the other’s controlled its vertical movements.
It turned out that not only could two monkeys work together to make the virtual arm pick up the virtual ball, but three monkeys were able to repeat the feet with a three-dimensional animation.
If the idea can be developed to work in humans, there are clearly all sorts of possibilities. However, Nicolesis says his prime goal would be to see if linking a healthy person’s brain to that of a stroke patient could speed up the process of the patient relearning motor skills.