Brain Hack Gives Blind Rats Psychic GPS Capabilities: New Technology Could Help Blind People Navigate More Easily

Scientists at the University of Tokyo have made an amazing discovery – a breakthrough in every sense.

Neuroscientist Yuji Ikegaya and pharmacologist Hiroaki Norimoto just completed a major study involving rats.

The duo connected small digital compasses on the brains of blind rats and found that they could move around in a maze just as well as rats with normal sight.

Illustration Provided by Hiroaki Norimoto and Yuji Ikegaya (2015)Illustration Provided by Hiroaki Norimoto and Yuji Ikegaya (2015)

Their study was published in the April 2015 edition of Current Biology, an esteemed academic journal, and their research suggests that similar implants may aid blind humans in helping them get around more freely. And interestingly enough they also suggest that this kind of technology could someday give humans novel superpowers.

“The most remarkable point of this paper is to show the potential, or the latent ability, of the brain,” says Ikegaya.

“That is, we demonstrated that the mammalian brain is flexible even in adulthood—enough to adaptively incorporate a novel, never-experienced, non-inherent modality into the pre-existing information sources.”

All 11 rats used in the study failed a maze test miserably before the operation took place. Then amazingly a few days later – after the compass implants were placed on their brains - the rats found their way through a maze just the same as normal sighted rats.

“We were surprised that rats can comprehend a new sense that had never been experienced, or explained by anybody, and can learn to use it in behavioural tasks within only two to three days,” adds Ikegaya.

The research team never set out to restore vision in the blind rats, but rather allow them to discover a more unique ‘allocentric sense’ – the key ingredient that allows humans and animals alike to link their body to their surroundings in a more natural way via sensory technology.

The digital compasses – the same you would find in smartphones - used on the blind rates were connected to a high-tech microstimulator that delivered a variety of electric signals to the visual cortex, explain the researchers in their study.

After a few days of having the compass switched on, the rats found their way through a T shaped maze with ease and found their food pellets. Of course when the compass was switched off their performance dropped dramatically and they were not able to find their food.

The findings and the application of the digital geomagnetic compasses and its sensors may soon be used by blind people so they too can get around with ease.

“Perhaps you do not yet make full use of your brain,” says Ikegaya. “The limitation does not come from your lack of effort, but it does come from the poor sensory organs of your body. The real sensory world must be much more colourful than what you are currently experiencing.”

Even more unique is that their study clearly proves that the brain is sophisticated and flexible enough to employ new senses which will lead the way for sighted humans to have more superpowers, giving them the ability to see infrared waves, and ultraviolent radiation – and plus a whole lot more.

So, when could we see this sort of technology being used by blind and normally sighted humans? The researchers do not provide time frame but suggest it should be sooner than we think.