Super-Rats gain Infra-Red Sixth Sense


Ever wondered what it would be like to suddenly gain a sixth sense? Say, something as cool as Terminator-style infra-red vision? A few rats were given that chance.

Researchers from Duke University in North Carolina have successfully given lab rats the ability to “see” infrared light, making them the first animals to gain a “sixth sense”.

The rats were outfitted with a head-mounted infra-red sensor, which was wired up to an implant in the region of their brain that normally processes touch sensations from whiskers.

Infrared light (IR), used in night-vision cameras, is part of the electromagnetic spectrum with longer wavelengths than those of visible light, putting it beyond the range our eyes can see. With the exception of some bats and snakes, IR is invisible to most living things, so the rats cannot normally see or perceive it.

With the implant, the rats learned to navigate to a reward when tipped off with the otherwise invisible light. As shown in the video, the rat's brain is tricked when infrared light is detected, giving it a new sense organ. Although the animal could not literally “see” the IR lights, it was able to feel and touch it. Remarkably so, the rat responds to “seeing” the IR light almost as quickly as seeing actual light.

This is the first time a mammal has been given the ability to sense something beyond what its species normally can, said Miguel Nicolelis, a Duke University Neuroengineer who led the rat experiment. "The meaning is that the brain is not limited by the transducers that exist in our body", he declares, "we can actually allow the brain to incorporate new information from the external world".

Even though the touch-processing brain area acquires a new role, the team has found that it continues to process touch sensations from whiskers, somehow dividing its time between both types of signal.

The finding could lead to new brain prostheses that restore sight in humans with a damaged visual cortex. By bypassing the damaged part of the brain altogether, it might be possible to wire up a video camera to a part of the brain that processes touch, letting people "touch" what the camera sees.

According to Nicolelis, it could also lead to superhero powers for humans. "It could be X-rays, radio waves, anything," he says. "Superman probably had a prosthetic device that nobody knew of".

Who knows, perhaps one day we might be able to augment our bodies with upgrades such as terminator vision or superman hearing. One could hope.

New Scientist. (2013). Night-vision rat becomes first animal with sixth sense.
Thomson, E.E., Carra, R., Nicolelis, M.A. (2013). Perceiving invisible light through a somatosensory cortical prosthesis. Nat Commun. 4: 1482.

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