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

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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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A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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