Neuroscientists at Duke University have proven that telepathic communication—between rats—is not only possible, but can be done across continents. Similar experiments are already being tested on monkeys.
The discovery, published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, is the first confirmed brain-to-brain communication between animals.
In the experiment, two rats that could not see each other were trained to press certain levers in exchange for a food pellet. The first rat was given a visual cue that told it which of two levers to push, which corresponded to a lever in the other rat's chamber. The other rat did not receive a visual cue but instead received brain waves (transmitted through arrays of electrodes between the rats' brains) that informed it which lever to push.
If the second rat pressed the correct lever, the first "encoder" rat would receive an additional reward, giving the rats incentive to work together. The second rat pressed the correct lever 70 percent of the time.
"Nobody had ever done this, so the challenge was significant. We didn't know if it would work," says study lead researcher Miguel Nicolelis. "It took us years to get this to work."
To prove the same experiment could be done with what Nicolelis calls "interference," he placed one rat in his lab in Durham, N.C., and one in a lab in Brazil. Using an Internet connection, he found the rats were still able to work together.
"We wanted to show that even when the line was noisy, we were able to get this to work," he says. "We used to do this with wires but now we're doing everything wirelessly and experimenting with swarms of rats."
Since his first successful experiment, Nicolelis has been able to create wireless connections between rats' brains and has begun experimenting with monkeys. Though that research is yet to be published, Nicolelis says early results are promising.
"Once we got it to work in rats, we were able to unlock the secret to this technology. We're already doing very much more sophisticated experiments with monkeys," he says. "They're learning to play games, controlling avatars of themselves on a screen."
As for the swarms of rats, the researcher says that getting dozens of rats to communicate with each other is more difficult, but possible. Someday, he imagines neural computing networks that could be more powerful than current technology.
"We may have a way to come up with new architectures of computing," he says. "How will it work? We don't know, but that's why we're going to test."
Nicolelis says it's far too early to think about experimenting with the technology on humans, but that his breakthrough "opens a completely new line of research."
"I'm not implying we should test now in humans, but when people made the first telephone transmission 100 years ago, people said it was too simplistic, it'd never work," he says. "I think this is an important first step."