Can neuroprostheses give rats a ‘sixth sense’?

This post isn’t about lab rats that befriend Bruce Willis and can see ghosts (although admittedly that would be pretty cool), but rather rats that seem to be able to sense infared with the help of an implant. Researchers implanted something called a “sensory neuroprosthesis” into the parts of rats’ brains that are responsible for the tactile sense (touch). This prosthesis device sent the brain a signal whenever it came into contact with

I see dead people.Photo: © Aazz1 | Stock Free Images

I see dead people.
Photo: © Aazz1 | Stock Free Images

an infared signal. Eventually, researchers could see that the rats were able to respond to infared signal by moving their whiskers. And, importantly, none of the rats’ sense of touch seemed to be detrimentally affected. Although the BBC, and the paper’s author, have reported on this study by calling it a “sixth sense”, it really isn’t an additional sense to perceive infared that the rats have been given – but rather an implantation that allows an already existing sense (touch) to interpret a new signal with the help of a machine.

The goal with this type of research is to help people with sensory deficits, like blindness. Although we are still a long way from being able to do this, this study is important because it’s the first time a machine has been able to interface with the brain’s already existing capabilities to perceive something new.

Here’s the original article abstract in Nature Communications, and a BBC article covering it.

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