A team of researchers from Due University in Durham, North Carolina, has developed an artificial organ which gives rats a sixth sense – the ability to ‘touch’ infrared light.
The bionic rats wear an infrared sensor mounted on their heads, which is then connected to a region of their brains usually involved in processing touch sensations. They are then able to sense the infrared light as if they were touching it.
“Instead of seeing, the rats learned how to touch the light,” says Miguel Nicolelis, the head of the team which developed the technique.
Despite using he same part of the brain which the rats use for processing sensations from their whiskers, the rats normal senses were not negatively affected by their new sixth sense. “The adult brain is a lot more plastic than we thought,” says Nicolelis.
This technology could be used to develop systems which would be able to restore sight to patients who have suffered damage to the visual cortex of their brain. But perhaps even more excitingly, it could also offer the possibility of giving ‘bionic’ humans additional sixth, or even seventh senses. The same technology could be used to allow people to sense light waves beyond the range of ordinary vision. “It could be X-rays, radio waves, anything,” says Nicolelis. “Superman probably had a prosthetic device that nobody knew of.”