In ground-breaking Star Trek-style experiments, scientists have successfully linked the brains of multiple rats and monkeys, creating a ‘brainet’ that allowed them to co-operate and learn as a superbrain.
In two separate experiments, reminiscent of the hive mind network of Star Trek’s Borg villains, the brains of monkeys and the brains of rats were linked, allowing the animals to exchange sensory and motor information in real time to control movement or complete computations.
In one example, scientists linked the brains of rhesus macaque monkeys, who worked together to control the movements of the arm of a virtual avatar on a digital display in front of them.
Each animal controlled two of three dimensions of movement for the same arm as they guided it together to touch a moving target.
In the rodent experiment, scientists networked the brains of four rats complete simple computational tasks involving pattern recognition, storage and retrieval of sensory information, and even weather forecasting.
Brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) are computational systems that allow subjects to use their brain signals to directly control the movements of artificial devices, such as robotic arms, exoskeletons or virtual avatars.
“This is the first demonstration of a shared brain-machine interface, a paradigm that has been translated successfully over the past decades from studies in animals all the way to clinical applications,” said Miguel Nicolelis, co-director of the Center for Neuroengineering at the Duke University School of Medicine and principal investigator for the study.
“We foresee that shared BMIs will follow the same track, and could soon be translated to clinical practice,” he said.
Nicolelis and his team outfitted the animals with arrays implanted in their motor and somatosensory cortices to capture and transmit their brain activity.
For one experiment, researchers recorded the electrical activity of more than 700 neurons from the brains of three monkeys as they moved a virtual arm toward a target.
In this experiment, each monkey mentally controlled two out of three dimensions of the virtual arm.
The monkeys could be successful only when at least two of them synchronised their brains to produce continuous 3-D signals that moved the virtual arm. As the animals gained more experience and training in the motor task, researchers found that they adapted to the challenge.
In another experiment, rats received temperature and barometric pressure information and were able to combine information with the other rats to predict an increased or decreased chance of rain.
These results, published in the journal Scientific Reports, support the idea that Brainets may serve as test beds for the development of organic computers created by the interfacing of multiple animal brains with computers.