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  • Dec 22, 2014
  • Updated: 6:31pm
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SCIENCE

Rats brains linked in 'organic computer' breakthrough

Experiments an important step in development of an 'organic computer', say study scientists

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 March, 2013, 3:44am

Scientists have connected the brains of a pair of rats and allowed them to share sensory information and experience each other's environment in a major step towards what the researchers call the world's first "organic computer".

The US team fitted two rats with devices called brain-to-brain interfaces that let the animals collaborate on simple tasks to earn rewards, such as a drink of water.

In one radical demonstration of the technology, the scientists used the internet to link the brains of rats separated by thousands of kilometres, with one in the researchers' lab at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and the other in Natal, Brazil.

Led by Miguel Nicolelis, a pioneer of devices that allow paralysed people to control computers and robotic arms with their thoughts, the researchers say their latest work may enable multiple brains to be hooked up to share information.

"These experiments showed that we have established a sophisticated, direct communication linkage between brains," Nicolelis said. "Basically, we are creating what I call an organic computer."

These experiments showed that we have established a sophisticated, direct communication linkage between brains

The scientists first demonstrated that rats can share, and act on, each other's sensory information by electrically connecting their brains via tiny grids of electrodes that reach into the motor cortex, the brain region that processes movement.

The rats were trained to press a lever when a light went on above it. When they performed the task correctly, they got a drink of water. To test the animals' ability to share brain information, they put the rats in two separate compartments. Only one compartment had a light that came on above the lever. When the rat pressed the lever, an electronic version of its brain activity was sent directly to the other rat's brain. In trials, the second rat responded correctly to the imported brain signals 70 per cent of the time by pressing the lever.

In the final test, the scientists connected rats on different continents and beamed their brain activity back and forth over the internet. "Even though the animals were on different continents, with the resulting noisy transmission and signal delays, they could still communicate," said Miguel Pais-Vieira, the first author of the study. "This tells us we could create a workable network of animal brains distributed in many different locations."

"We cannot even predict what kinds of emergent properties would appear when animals begin interacting as part of a 'brain-net'," Nicolelis said.

"In theory, you could imagine that a combination of brains could provide solutions that individual brains cannot achieve by themselves."

The research is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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