Monkey and Rat Brains Wired Together—for Science

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In a pair of studies released Thursday, Duke University researchers used electrodes to meld the minds of rats and monkeys. IndiaPictures/Getty

Ever said, "Let's put our heads together" to a group of people when trying to tackle a difficult task? Scientists have just literalized this saying—with animal brains.

In a pair of studies released Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, Duke University researchers used electrodes to meld the minds of rats and monkeys. They then had the joint brains carry out a series of simple functions, such as moving a computer generated arm. This is the first time multiple brains have been connected to complete tasks.

The team started by implanting two sets of electrodes in the brains of four rats. They then sent an identical signal to each rat's brain and had a computer monitor their responses. Whenever the rats produced the same response, they were rewarded with a sip of water. After many trials, the rats learned how to synchronize their responses and were able to do so in 87 percent of cases.

The researchers then focused on the monkeys (rhesus macaques to be exact), implanting electrodes in two of their brains and linking both to a computer. They then had the monkeys look at a computer screen, which displayed images of an arm and ball. The monkeys' combined brain signals could move the arm. Over time, they too learned to work together: after a while, they were able to jointly move the arm toward the ball target—thanks to a juice reward, of course.

(Side note: Before the experiment, the researchers conducted a juice preference test. You know, to make sure it was a reward worth the brain activity. They all had different favorites.)

The lead researcher, Miguel Nicolelis, is no stranger to experiments of cranium control—he's been wiring animal brains to computers since 1999. But he's probably best-known for helping a paraplegic man kick off the 2014 World Cup using a brain-controlled exoskeleton.

A superbrain is objectively cool, but it also has the potential to turn into a very practical tool. In the future, people may be able to literally pool their brainpower to make collective decisions, or carry out a single task. Imagine multiple surgeons performing one surgery. But there are also concerns, such as ensuring privacy or determining legal responsibility if a joint venture went awry.

Nicolelis's next step, he says, is to find out whether melding a healthy human brain with that of a stroke victim would help the latter relearn how to move his or her paralyzed leg faster than current therapies. If it turns out to be a success, it paves the way for a truly endless list of possibilities.… My brain hurts.

Monkey and Rat Brains Wired Together—for Science | Tech & Science