With Compass Hooked to the Brain, Blind Rats Act Like They Can See

Research raises hope that people may one day get novel superhuman senses

1 min read
With Compass Hooked to the Brain, Blind Rats Act Like They Can See
Illustration: Hiroaki Norimoto and Yuji Ikegaya

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By hooking up the brains of blind rats to compasses, scientists in Japan found the sightless rodents could navigate a maze nearly as well as normally sighted rats. These findings suggest that a similar kind of neuroprosthesis might one day help blind people navigate, and grant people novel superhuman senses, the researchers say in the 2 April  in the journal Current Biology.

Scientists at the University of Tokyo did not set out to restore vision to the blind rats, but to enhance their so-called allocentric sense, which helps people and animals recognize the positions of their bodies within environments. They devised a head-mounted geomagnetic sensor that connected the kind of digital compass found in smartphones to two tungsten microelectrodes that stimulated the right or left parts of the blind rodents' visual cortex when they faced north or south, respectively.

The rats were trained to seek out food pellets in mazes. After dozens of experiments over only two or three days, the rodents learned to solve the mazes with performance levels and navigation strategies much like those of normally sighted rats.

The scientists suggest that attaching geomagnetic sensors to canes could help blind people get around even better with walking sticks. More generally, these findings support the idea that brains is flexible enough to adapt to completely new senses. This suggests that people could one day successfully expand their senses with artificial sensors that detect magnetic fields, ultraviolet rays, ultrasound waves and more.

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Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

11 min read
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A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
Nadia Radic
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Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

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