Not one of the rats used in the experiment; just another rat with a remote control brain implant. Image via YouTube/TBU News
Researchers at Zhejiang University published a paper titled “Human Mind Control of Rat Cyborg’s Continuous Locomotion with Wireless Brain-to-Brain Interface” this month, wherein they revealed that they’d succeeded in controlling rats with the power of human thought.In the paper, the authors explain that brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) already allow humans to control external devices with their minds in various ways—mind-controlled prosthetics are one example. Certain studies have taken that idea a few steps further, and posited that one could create a brain-to-brain interface (BBI) using similar methods. But no one had actually used a BBI to take control of another living creature and steer it through a complex maze, and that's precisely what the academics at Zheijang set out to achieve.
To conduct the experiment, researchers implanted microelectrodes into the brain of a living rat—thus rendering it a “rat cyborg”—and connected it to the brain of a human “manipulator” who was hooked up to a computer BMI. Movement-related thoughts in the mind of the manipulator sent signals to the computer, which then translated those signals into instructions and sent them to the brain of the rat. Between the manipulator, the BMI, and the rat cyborg, a BBI was created.“With this interface, our manipulators were able to mind control a rat cyborg to smoothly complete maze navigation tasks,” the authors state. “Control instructions… were wirelessly sent to the rat cyborg through brain micro-electrical stimulation.”When the human manipulator thought about moving their left arm, the rat was commanded to turn left; when they thought about moving their right arm, the rat would turn right; while blinking sent signals that commanded the rat cyborg to move forward. Discover Magazine notes that the mazes the rat was forced to navigate became increasingly complex: from just a few tubes in the first instance, to more complicated structures that had tight turns, multiple levels, and a specific prescribed path. Over time, the six rat cyborgs used in the study reportedly became more proficient at navigating the maze, and “a tacit understanding [developed] between the human and the rat cyborg.”“The results showed that rat cyborgs could be smoothly and successfully navigated by the human mind to complete a navigation task in a complex maze,” they wrote. “Our experiments indicated that the cooperation through transmitting multidimensional information between two brains by computer-assisted BBI is promising.”
It’s worth pointing out that rats aren’t the first animal to be turned into a mind-controlled cyborg, though. Recently, a BBI was used to implement motion control of a cockroach cyborg and steer it around an S-shaped track. In the future, the Zheijang researchers hope that “information flow will be made bidirectional and communicative between two human individuals.”Andrea Stocco—a brain researcher at the University of Washington who called the results of the rat cyborg study “impressive but believable”—thinks the science could be taken even further than that.“The holy grail of BBI would be sharing rich content that cannot be better expressed in words, such as emotions and feelings,” he told Discover. “We are still so far from that, but, of course, that would be the dream.”Follow Gavin on Twitter or InstagramSign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.