It has been put to good use by comic book superheroes and by alien predators hell-bent on wiping out mankind, but soon humans could also be able to see infrared light.
Scientists have used brain implants to give rats a ‘sixth-sense’ that enables them to detect and react to the normally invisible light source.
The research proves it is possible for the adult brain to adapt to new forms of input and opens up the possibility of enabling humans to gain an array of superhuman senses.
Researchers say it may be possible to attach sensors for other forms of light such as ultraviolet, microwaves and even x-rays using brain implants.
In the study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the scientists implanted four clusters of electrodes into a part of the brain responsible for whisker sensation in rats.
Each cluster was connected to a sensor that converted infrared light into an electrical signal.
Tests were used to show if the rats with the implants were able to detect the infrared light.
With just a single sensor, the rats took one month to adapt to the signals their brains were receiving, allowing them to detect an infrared light above a feeding station and press a button beneath it.
Those that were given four sensors, however, were able to detect the infrared light and react to the messages received by their brains in less than four days.
Dr Miguel Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke University Medical Centre in Durham, North Carolina, who led the work, said the study demonstrated the ability of the mammalian brain to adapt.
Writing in the journal, the researchers said: ‘These results show that the adult human mammalian neocortex can readily absorb completely new information sources into its representational repertoire, and use this information in the production of adaptive behaviours.
‘Within days, rats learned to use the prosthesis to track down items associated with IR light in their environment.
‘This is quite promising clinically, as the largest demand for sensory prosthetic devices is in adults whose brains are already fully developed.’
According to New Scientist, further research by the team shows rats can learn even faster when the infrared prosthesis is fed directly into their visual cortex.
It took the rodents just seven hours to adapt to the new input, perhaps because the visual cortex is already used to interpreting light.
Dr Nicolelis told the magazine he was hoping to conduct further experiments with multiple parts of the light spectrum, using visual and infrared light at the same time.
He said it could also be done with other sources of light such as ultraviolet or microwaves.
‘It would be a fusion,’ said Dr Nicolelis. ‘Total vision.’
The ability to see in infrared light has been a common theme in science fiction, such as in the film Predator where the alien hunter uses it to detect heat signatures.
Infrared light is currently used by military and police forces using night vision equipment and to track suspects in heavy foliage as it is often given off as heat.
Yet, while obtaining the ability to see in different wavelengths of light beyond the visual spectrum might be appealing for many, the researchers believe their work will have applications in the medical world initially.
It could help to restore sight to those who have lost their eyesight for example by using a prosthesis that converts light into electrical signals.
However, it could also be used by the military to enable soldiers to see the enemy at night using infrared sources, or allow them to see through walls with microwaves.
Professor Yuji Ikegaya, a neuroscientist at the University of Tokyo in Japan who was not involved in the research, told New Scientist: ‘Now there’s no doubt that it’s easy for the mammalian brain, even in adulthood, to adaptively use a novel, never-experienced sense, such as infrared.’
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3496895/Could-soon-superhero-NIGHT-VISION-Brain-implants-rats-sixth-sense-making-infrared.html#ixzz43CeWPgY5
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