Scientists link rats to real-world 'Matrix' via the Internet

Rodents connected by brain waves prove feasibility of a networked brain, sans Keanu Reeves.

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Eric Mack
3 min read
These guys are, like, totally on the same wavelength. Screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

There is officially a Wachowski Brothers-style "Matrix" for rodents.

Scientists in North Carolina and Brazil have connected the brains of two rats using "brain-to-brain interfaces" that can connect directly or via the Internet. These allow the rodents to share sensory information, collaborate on tasks to earn rewards, and fight back against the shadowy and cyber-apocalyptic forces that have enslaved them.

There's actually no evidence of the latter, but I'd still suggest researchers watch out for any rats that start displaying a propensity for martial arts.

Hollywood franchises aside for a moment, the experiment was conducted by basically training one "encoder" rat in a lab to press a certain lever (represented by a certain color) to earn a food pellet as a reward. A copy of the brain activity behind that behavioral decision was then translated into a pattern of electrical stimulation that could be transported directly to another "decoder" rat's brain. That decoder rat was then able to press the same correct lever and receive its reward 70 percent of the time without undergoing the same training or receiving any other visual cues about which lever to select.

As if that wasn't freaky enough, the brain-to-brain communication between the two rats was two-way and the encoder rat didn't get its full treat if the decoder rat made the wrong choice. This twist led the rats to actually work together.

"We saw that when the decoder rat committed an error, the encoder basically changed both its brain function and behavior to make it easier for its partner to get it right," Duke University Medical Center neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis said in a statement.

"The encoder improved the signal to-noise ratio of its brain activity that represented the decision, so the signal became cleaner and easier to detect. And it made a quicker, cleaner decision to choose the correct lever to press. Invariably, when the encoder made those adaptations, the decoder got the right decision more often, so they both got a better reward."

Just to prove that rats don't use some sort of whisker-based sonar that we haven't yet decoded, a similar experiment was conducted with two rats attached to brain-to-brain interfaces, but separated by thousands of miles. The brain-to-brain connection in this case was held together by sending data over the Internet. The researchers found that even with the associated noisy transmission and signal delays, the distant rats were still able to work together to get fed.

This is what rodent cooperation looks like. Duke University

Turns out, there is a point to all this beyond just playing Dr. Frankenstein.

"These experiments (PDF) showed that we have established a sophisticated, direct communication linkage between brains, and that the decoder brain is working as a pattern-recognition device. So basically, we are creating what I call an organic computer," Nicolelis explains.

So now that we have created telepathic rats, what's next? Why, networked brains, of course!

Nicolelis believes it could be possible to connect more than just two brains together to form what he calls a "brain-net."

And you thought the "Matrix" reference was just link bait.

"We cannot even predict what kinds of emergent properties would appear when animals begin interacting as part of a 'brain-net'," Nicolelis said. "In theory, you could imagine that a combination of brains could provide solutions that individual brains cannot achieve by themselves."

This stuff isn't quite in the realm of totally nutso-mad-scientist fodder, however. Some of the possible practical applications include helping us to better understand the social interactions between animals, and recording networked brain signals could also be beneficial to current research aimed at restoring motor control to paralyzed people.

But I still think it's a good idea to keep Bruce Lee flicks out of the view of any brain-networked animal.

The researchers have published their findings in Scientific Reports. Nicolelis describes the experiments in the video below.