Enhancing the brain beyond our senses

Drawing of a rat with the geomagnetic sensor connected to its brain to provide a new perception of the world. Credits: Hiroaki Norimoto and Yuji Ikegaya/Current Biology

Just yesterday I posted the news on an innovation that would allow us, through a smartphone camera, to get information about the atomic composition of an object. We can't do that with just our eyes because they can only extract a limited amount of information from light beams.

But what if we can get a variety of information leapfrogging our senses by connecting the world directly to our brain? There are animals with senses that can perceive infrared (snakes), ultraviolet wavelengths (bees), ultrasounds (bats), electrical fields (sharks) and geomagnetic fields (migrating birds). They have developed specific sensory capability to detect these signals and a brain able to extract relevant information.  
Clearly we are not equipped with a sensory system that can pick up those data. The question is: would our brain be able to extract relevant information if we were equipped with those sensory capabilities?

Apparently, the answer is YES!

This is the result of a study, and experiments, carried out by researchers at Tokyo University.

The researchers have shown that by connecting a geomagnetic sensor (a compass) to the brain of a blind mouse using two electrodes implanted in the visual cortex, in a very short time, 2-3 days, the mouse starts to make sense and use the signals coming from the sensor in an effective way.

The test was made having the mouse in a maze with food at one end of it. By using geomagnetic references in a few days the mouse learnt to create a visual map of the maze, as good as the one that is created by normal sight mice.

This shows that the mammals' brain (if we can extrapolate from mice, which seems reasonable to do) even in its adulthood has the plasticity to reorganise itself to make use of sensorial stimuli, even those that are not part of the normal slate provided by body sensors (touch, sight, hear, taste, smell, proprioceptors). For a brain, all signals come in electrical form, our senses are just (smart) transducers of external signals into internal electoral signals.

According to the scientists it should be possibile in a non distant future to interconnect the brain to artificial sensors, making it possibile to get a variety of data that today are not captured by our senses. And the brain will find a way to reconfigure its circuits to make sense of these data transforming them into information.
Superman x-ray sight seems to be no longer a figment of the imagination of Jerry Siegel. Of course there are, as in any innovations, awkward situations popping up. Just remember the moment when Loris Lane asked Supermam for the color of her underpants ... and the face she had when he said "pink"!

Author - Roberto Saracco

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