Science Editor, NBC News
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This video provides an introduction to the infrared-sensing rat experiment.
Check the Web page at http://www.nicolelislab.net/?p=345
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Does all this sound like a dream come true for the disabled, or a nightmare for folks worried about mind-reading robots?