Books written by Ray Sullivan

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Leave the Mouse, Use a Rat

Researchers in the US have managed to link rat brains up together, both physically and remotely, to prove that thoughts can be transmitted from one brain to another.  The method is not as invasive as it might at first appear, with the physical connections being made to the surface of the skull and in fact the results are not as science fiction as they sound, either.  However there is scope for developments by the research team based in North Carolina.

First, it's important to recall a few basic things about rats if only because they have developed a reputation for being relatively intelligent.  Well, rats do two things mostly, three if you include sleeping.  When awake they tend to spend their time finding food (and eating it, of course) and humping.  They're not too picky about their food and they're not at all choosy when it comes to humping as long as it is rat shaped and warm.  Siblings, parents, cousins - none are excluded in the hump hunt.  They have an incredibly high mortality rate that is managed by an incredibly productive reproduction process.  One of natural selection's solutions to high mortality, I guess.  Or perhaps the high mortality rate is selection's solution to their prodigious sexual appetite.  You choose.

What the scientists have done is train rats to push a lever only when a light above it is lit.  To make it more of a challenge, and to remove some of the potential for random effects distorting the experiment, there are two lights and two levers.  When a rat learns to push the correct lever in response to a light then a water reward is dispensed.  Ethics being what they are in science, a hump as a reward is probably a no-go area.

Once fully trained the rats are connected by the skull surface wires and located in two similar areas, complete with lights and levers, however the lights are only operated in one of the areas.  The rat seeing the light inevitably pushes the correct lever and receives its reward.  The researchers have found that over time the second rat appears to receive a message from the first one and obtains a reward for choosing the correct lever.  This isn't a quick process - reputedly it takes about 45 days at one hour's worth of training per day, and the success rate for a trained rat is about 70%.  The experiment has also been carried out thousands of miles apart, using a computer to receive the signal, email it to the receiving centre and then pushed on to the waiting rat.

Part of this is relatively easy to understand on an intuitive level - the first rat is generating some sort of brain activity that is converted to electrical signals that travel down the wire to the second rat, who learns to associate the signal with it being the equivalent of a light.  The 70% success rate indicates that on average the second rat is correctly guessing the lever to push more often than simple probability would suggest.  So there does seem to be something in it.

But is this the route to human mind melds?  Probably not, the surface mounted sensors are almost certainly not sufficient to transmit more complicated messages - heck, given the rats were encased in a bland environment with nothing to eat or hump then it's likely any rewarding situation would have triggered a brainwave surge.  However it doesn't explain the slightly higher than average success rate, so perhaps  more than a simple electrical surge is happening here, perhaps the rats do learn to pass a specific message.

It's obviously early days here, but the potential of this can't be ignored.  It's a step forward and perhaps we can look at a future when persons trapped inside a body that doesn't respond to the brain through injury can map their thoughts to a second person, or control equipment by thought.


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