The experiment could put us a step closer to human telepathy.
Chinese researchers claim they've built a brain-to-brain interface (BBI) that lets humans guide rats through a complex maze — using only their minds.
But it is the first time a person has used a BBI to complete something as complex as the navigation task set before the Chinese team's rats — meaning it could put us one step closer to powerful mind-control systems.
The team from Zhejiang University describes its research in a study published on Monday in the journal Scientific Reports.
The team started by implanting four pairs of microelectrodes into two parts of each rat's brain, creating six of what they call "rat cyborgs." Then the team trained the rats to associate electrical stimulations with certain movements. They controlled the stimulations wirelessly, with the pulses delivered via a tiny pack worn on the backs of the rat cyborgs.
Next, they placed an electroencephalogram (EEG) connected to a computer over a human controller's head. The EEG recorded the person's brain signals, and the computer translated them into instructions — "turn left," for example — that it delivered to the rat via electric signals.
Using the system, the human controllers guided the cyborg rats through two tests, including a complex maze in which the animals had to navigate stairs and go through a tunnel. According to the researcher's paper, "The rats all performed well with high success rate in 10 consecutive tests."
While the researchers don't note any potential uses for their BBI technology in this paper, they suggested in a previous study that rat cyborgs could be useful during search and rescue operations.
That application might be feasible, but biomedical engineer Angus McMorland, who wasn't involved in the Zhejiang University study, isn't sure it would be the most efficient plan.
"Could they use this technology to navigate a rat carrying a small walkie-talkie and camera through a collapsed building looking for survivors?" McMorland asked CNET. "Yes, it looks like that would work, but a hand-operated remote control would be a lot more reliable."
For now, the research seems more like another step forward on the path to BBIs we could use for more complicated tasks — and maybe even one day telepathy between humans.
READ MORE: Scientists Connect a Human Brain and 'Rat Cyborg' Brain Together [CNET]