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Lab rats show signs of ‘sixth sense’

Researchers at Duke University seem to have discovered a way to give mice a sixth sense.

By putting an implant in the brains of the mice, scientists were able to create animals that could “touch” infrared light. The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, is even more impressive given the fact that infrared light is invisible to mice.

In order to give the mice their sixth sense, researchers placed electrodes in their brains that were attached to an infrared detector. The electrodes were then attached to the part of the animals’ brains responsible for processing information about touch.

The study is just one step to figuring out how to apply this technology to humans. For example, scientists involved with the project say one day similar electrodes may be implanted in the brains of humans who are blind. The use of the electrodes in the right spot of the brain could, theoretically, allow the patient to regain their eyesight.

According to Miguel Nicolelis, of the Duke University Medical Center and the lead author of the paper, this study was the first time that machines allowed the brain to create a new sense in adult animals. In addition, the study showed, for the first time, that a part of the brain can take on a new task while still maintaining its old job.

Eric Thomson, who also worked on the project, said past brain-machine studies have focused on restoring function to damaged areas of the brain, not creating it. “This is the first paper in which a neuroprosthetic device was used to augment function – literally enabling a normal animal to acquire a sixth sense.”

In order to test their brain-machine device, the researchers taught mice to pick between three chambers, one with a light source that would give them a water reward. After the mice got the hang of it, the scientists implanted the microscopic electrodes, which were attached to infrared detectors, into the brains of the mice.

The mice were then subjected to the same experiments, but this time with infrared light. The research team observed that the mice first began touching their faces when they infrared light was shown, which meant they were processing the light as touch. However, after a month of repeating the experiments, the mice started to began to associate the infrared light with the signal in their brains.

Soon after, the animals began searching for the infrared light in order to get their reward. After a little while, they began to receive perfect marks in finding the infrared light, despite it being invisible to their eyes.

In addition to these groundbreaking findings, the scientists found that creating the infrared-detecting sixth sense did not stop the mice from being able to process tough signals, despite the electrodes being placed in the tactile cortex.