by Alan Boyle

Science Editor, NBC News
February 17, 3013

from NBCNews Website









This video provides an introduction to the infrared-sensing rat experiment.

Check the Web page at

for the full series of videos, as well as background about the experiment





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.

Todd 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 Ö 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.


Miguel Nicolelis said the experiment showed that the brain is "much more plastic than we thought" when it comes to adapting to new stimuli.


That plasticity is the key to another set of experiments he and his colleagues have been conducting with rhesus monkeys, in which the monkeys learn to use their brain waves to control robotic arms or manipulate virtual objects on a computer screen.


Over the years, Nicolelis' research team has developed a brain-cap system for monkeys that can pick up neural signals in almost 2,000 channels simultaneously, and send them wirelessly to a computer for processing.


Nicolelis indicated that he was closing in on the goal of creating a system that could control a full-body exoskeleton.

"We can get animals to control the whole body now, when you get to the 1,000-neuron margin," he said.

Such work feeds into the Walk Again Project, a multinational effort to develop next-generation, full-body prosthetics for people with disabilities.


Nicolelis wants to have an experimental brain-controlled exoskeleton ready in time to make its debut at next year's World Cup soccer finals, which are to be hosted by Brazil, Nicolelis' native country.

"We hope we will open the World Cup with a paraplegic young adult walking onto the field," he said.

Coleman, meanwhile, is working on ways to make brain-control devices less obtrusive.


He is among several researchers who have been developing stamp-sized wireless sensors that can be worn like temporary tattoos.


Such sensors can be used to monitor a person's medical signs - but if they're worn on the head, it's possible to pick up brain waves. In fact, Coleman found that the wireless tattoo sensors worked as well as the conventional, wired stick-on electrodes.







Todd Coleman, a bioengineering professor at the University of California at San Diego,

demonstrates how his "wireless tattoos" make monitoring bodily functions much easier.



The results suggest that someday, it might be possible to develop a computer program to read the brain-wave patterns sent in by a tattoo on your forehead, and then fine-tune a virtual character to respond as if it was reading your thoughts.


The tattoos could have more down-to-earth applications in the medical field:

In the future, such sensors could be used to monitor a newborn's brain for any signs of abnormality, or an older person's brain for signs of cognitive impairment.

"As we age, our ability to respond, or to modulate our attention to different new types of inputs, will start to slow down," Coleman said in a below video interview distributed by AAAS.


"Imagine if we could... mount a sticker to the forehead that can provide quantitative outputs - measurements of that."





An "electronic tattoo" the size of a postage stamp and the thickness of a human hair can be used to monitor laboring women and seizure-prone infants, because it provides a non-invasive way to track the electrical rhythms on the surface of the body, according to Todd Coleman of the University of California, San Diego.

Another apparatus, developed by Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University Medical Center and colleagues, allows rats to "feel" infrared light by stimulating the tactile center in their brains.

Devices like these could have remarkable benefits, but they may also lead to ethical, legal and social quandaries that should be discussed as the technology progresses, researchers said at the AAAS Annual Meeting.

Speakers in the session on brain-machine interfaces, organized by AAASí Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER) program, suggested that the most extreme examples - of cyborgs or people endowed with superhuman abilities courtesy of machines - are far from becoming reality.


But neuroscience applications, in particular, are moving along much faster than other technologies like genetic engineering in the quest to build a better human.

Martha Farah, who directs the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, warned that the technologies may bring other worries in the near term:

Will only the rich and connected be able to take advantage of the devices and the health or performance enhancements that they bring? Will the devices be so good at transmitting brainwaves that our private thoughts are compromised? Will hackers be able to control our thoughts through these new interfaces?

Many of these technologies, beginning with cochlear implants for the deaf and including Colemanís tattoos, got their start as a way to correct health deficits or perform critical clinical functions.


But Farah said that this was the same notion at first behind plastic surgery and drugs for hyperactivity, both of which are now used widely by people without obvious health issues.

"In the near term, there will be questions of how modest these disabilities should be before considering these invasive interventions."

Brent Waters, an associate professor of Christian social ethics at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, said that most religious people would not object to the therapeutic applications of these devices.


He said more people would be concerned if brain-machine interfaces became ubiquitous in the search for human perfection, since,

"these quests have usually ended up inhumane regimes."

Nicolelis reassured the AAAS audience, however, that a non-invasive patch like the Coleman tattoo could never be powerful enough to download and broadcast all the contents of a personís brain.

"Thatís not how the brain works. It is not computable like that."



Does all this sound like a dream come true for the disabled, or a nightmare for folks worried about mind-reading robots?