Lab Rats Acquire 'Sixth Sense'

Paging Bruce Willis?

By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff

Posted Feb 18, 2013 8:48 AM CST

(Newser) – A group of lab rats at North Carolina's Duke University has acquired an enviable ability: a "sixth sense." Scientists say they found a way to enable the rats to detect infrared light that would otherwise go unseen. The Verge explains the mechanics of the feat, which involved outfitting each rat with an infrared detector that was connected to electrodes implanted in the part of the creature's brain that controls touch. The animals were primed for the experiment by being trained to identify a visible LED light by sticking their nose in a corresponding port; when they did so, they were given water.

Researchers then flipped on one of three invisible ultraviolet lights; the infrared detector on the rats' foreheads identified the light and triggered the electrodes. The rats initially rubbed their whiskers when this happened, signalling that they were "feeling" the light. But within a month, they began to link the signal to the infrared light and were able to sweep their heads toward the left and right to find it (the Financial Times describes it as "foraging" for the signal). The rats could ultimately indicate which of the three was turned on (again, by sticking their nose into a port) with complete accuracy. A key side note: Their sense of touch wasn't adversely affected. The hope: That we'll one day be able to "hijack" a person's functioning sense to restore a non-functioning one; Gizmodo gives the example of enabling sight elsewhere in the brain of a person who is blind due to problems with his visual cortex.

A lab rat.
A lab rat.   (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
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