How neuroscientists are hacking into brain waves to open new frontiers


 Neuroscientists are following through on the promise of artificially enhanced bodies by creating the ability to "feel" flashes of light in invisible wavelengths, or building an entire virtual body that can be controlled via brain waves.

"Things that we used to think were hoaxes or science fiction are fast becoming reality," said Todd Coleman, a bioengineering professor at the University of California at San Diego. Coleman and other researchers surveyed the rapidly developing field of neuroprosthetics in Boston this weekend at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

One advance came to light just in the past week, when researchers reported that they successfully wired up rats to sense infrared light and move toward the signals to get a reward. "This was the first attempt … not to restore a function but to augment the range of sensory experience," said Duke University neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis, the research team's leader.

The project, detailed in the journal Nature Communications, involved training rats to recognize a visible light source and poke at the source with its nose to get a sip of water. Then electrodes were implanted in a region of the rats' brains that is associated with whisker-touching. The electrodes were connected to an infrared sensor on the rats' heads, which stimulated the target neurons when the rat was facing the source of an infrared beam. Then the visible lights in the test cage were replaced by infrared lights.

It typically took about four weeks of practice for the rats to figure out how to use their new infrared sensory system, but eventually the rats could respond to the invisible light as well as they responded to the visible light. Presumably, they could "feel" where the infrared flash was coming from, as part of their whisker-touching sense.

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