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Feeling the invisible

By Sid Perkins / February 18, 2013 A sensor wired to a portion of the rat brain that normally processes the sense of touch enabled a group of the laboratory animals to detect a f orm of light they cannot ordinarily see, scientists say. T he new research underscores how adaptable the brain is. It also of f ers hope that someday people who have suf f ered severe brain damage or gone blind could regain some lost f unction. In the experiment, Miguel Nicolelis and his colleagues mounted inf rared sensors onto the scalps of rats. As a neuroscientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C., Nicolelis studies the brain and nervous system. Using tiny wires, his team recently

Re s e arc he rs traine d a rat with an infrare d -d e te c ting s e ns o r wire d into its b rain that it c o uld find wate r at a d o o r marke d with an invis ib le lig ht. Cre d it: Tho ms o n e t al., Nature Co mmunic atio ns (2013)

connected the detectors to that part of the rat brain that normally interprets signals coming f rom the whiskers. T he connection allowed the rats to sense the inf rared light picked up by the detectors. Normally, rats cannot see in the inf rared. Inf rared is just one f orm of electromagnetic radiation. X rays, radio waves and visible light are some other f orms. T he eyes of humans, rats and most other mammals can see only visible light, or the colors red through violet. Other colors along the electromagnetic spectrum are invisible to them. T hese include ultraviolet (ultra in Latin means beyond) and inf rared (inf ra in Latin means below). While most mammals cannot see in the inf rared, scientists have designed electronic sensors that can. In f act, you probably use an inf rared sensor or two every day. Televisions and DVD players use such

detectors to receive inf rared signals f rom remote controls. T he new experiment used similar sensors to let rats see inf rared light too. Of course, their eyes remained blind to inf rared light. So Nicolelis and his team bypassed their eyes. T he researchers designed the experiment to see if the rats could use an area of their brain normally used in decoding touch signals to understand light signals. In the end, the rats learned how to f eel inf rared light. Here is how: First, the team placed rats f itted with the inf rared implants in a round chamber, roughly 1 meter (3 f eet) in diameter. T he chamber had several small holes in its circular wall. A light was next to each hole. In the beginning, the rats learned to access a water bottle through one of the holes. Researchers then started turning on the light outside the hole where water was available. (At the other holes, where there was no water, the light remained of f .) Eventually the rats learned that a light signaled that water was available at a particular hole. T hen the researchers changed the signal. Now they turned on an inf rared light next to the hole where water was available. Again, the rats could not detect this signal with their eyes. However, the inf rared sensor could detect it. T he detector passed along that inf ormation to the brains of the rats. At f irst, the rats seemed conf used whenever the sensors on their heads detected inf rared light, says Nicolelis. T hey rubbed their f aces and cleaned their whiskers a lot, he says. T his was a new sensation f or them. In a sense, these rats were f eeling the light, not seeing it, he explains. Soon the rats learned to separate the sensations. Some came f rom the inf rared sensors. Other were delivered by their whiskers. Bef ore long, the rats started scanning their heads back and f orth. T hat allowed the sensor to look f or the inf rared light that marked the hole with water. Af ter 26 days, all six rats f itted with inf rared sensors could f ind water more than 70 percent of the time. Over time, their success rate climbed to more than 90 percent. Nicolelis described his teams experiments Feb. 17 at a meeting of the American Association f or the Advancement of Science in Boston. T he scientists also reported their results earlier in the week in Nature Communications. T he teams experiment was designed to demonstrate the plasticity of brain f unction. Plastic in this sense means reshapable or adaptable. So the idea is that a part of the brain may be able to stretch its normal f unction to include new tasks. In this experiment, groups of nerves that normally decode one type of signal (touch) could learn to do the same with another (sight). T his is a f ascinating result, says Todd Coleman. Hes a neuroscientist at the University of Calif ornia, San Diego. T his study demonstrates just how adaptable the brain is, he explains. It also suggests that researchers might one day help people whose brains have suf f ered damage through injury or disease. It would work by partially re-training one portion of the brain to do the work a damaged portion once did. Taking advantage of the brains capacity to rewire itself wouldnt f ully restore a lost sense, Nicolelis cautions. For instance, a person who became blind might receive an implant that restored limited vision. T he patient wouldnt be able to see objects in great detail, only distinguish vague shapes. Power Words electromagnetic radiation Forms of light. Electromagnetic radiation is typically classif ied by its wavelength. T he spectrum of electromagnetic radiation ranges f rom radio waves to gamma rays. It also includes microwaves and visible light. infrared light A type of electromagnetic radiation invisible to the human eye. T he name incorporates a Latin term and means below red. Inf rared light has wavelengths longer than those visible to humans. Other invisible wavelengths include X rays, radio waves and microwaves. neuroscientist A researcher who studies the nervous system of animals, including the brain. plasticity Plastic means adaptable or reshapable. Here, it ref ers to the ability of the brain to stretch its normal f unction or abilities. T his might include the brains ability to rewire itself to recover some lost f unctions and compensate f or damage.