Rats and scientists send mixed messages

This blog’s refrain on the brain is that it is a mistake to abstract the brain from the rest of the body and to abstract that body from the social relations that keep it alive. Neuroscience, of course, does precisely this.

If you want to appreciate how neuroscience understands the brain, approach it from the reverse angle, i.e., from the perspective of the subjects of these experiments. In this case, rats.

In recent days, much has been made of some experiments conducted by scientists at Duke University in the USA and a university in Natal, Brazil. The following links give the details:

BBC News – One rat brain ‘talks’ to another using electronic link.

Brains of rats connected allowing them to share information via internet | Science | guardian.co.uk

Telepathy closer to becoming reality after rats’ brains ‘linked’ across continents

In essence, two rats in separate locations had electrodes attached to their brains and these electrodes were connected by a brain-to-brain interface (BYBI) which, in one part of the experiments, included the internet. The claim is that the rats shared ‘behaviourally meaningful sensorimotor information.’ This from the paper’s abstract:

In this BTBI, an “encoder” rat performed sensorimotor tasks that required it to select from two choices of tactile or visual stimuli. While the encoder rat performed the task, samples of its cortical activity were transmitted to matching cortical areas of a “decoder” rat using intracortical microstimulation (ICMS). The decoder rat learned to make similar behavioral selections, guided solely by the information provided by the encoder rat’s brain. These results demonstrated that a complex system was formed by coupling the animals’ brains, suggesting that BTBIs can enable dyads or networks of animal’s brains to exchange, process, and store information and, hence, serve as the basis for studies of novel types of social interaction and for biological computing devices. (A Brain-to-Brain Interface for Real-Time Sharing of Sensorimotor Information, Nature. Scientific Reports 3, Article number: 1319).

Cue speculation about cyborg rats, telepathic rats and rats ‘sharing information via internet’. Not so fast though. Let’s read the small print:

Animals assigned to the encoder group were implanted with recording arrays of 32 microelectrodes in the primary motor cortex and after recovery resumed the initial training scheme. Animals assigned to the decoder group were implanted with arrays of 4 to 6 microstimulation electrodes in the primary motor cortex and were further trained to associate the presence of electrical microstimulation pulses with the correct lever press. Extra training followed, with a sequence of 60 to 100 pulses indicating a correct choice in the right lever while the absence of microstimulation pulses (1 pulse) indicated a correct left lever choice. During the electrical microstimulation training phase a trial started with a brief period of white noise, followed by the electrical microstimulation cue. Immediately after this cue both LEDs were turned on. If a correct choice was made the reward port would open and the animal was allowed a brief period of access to water (300 ms), otherwise both LEDs were turned off and the intertrial interval started. (my emphasis)

No ‘information’ nor ‘thoughts’ were transmitted. Rather the receiver or encoder rat was ‘trained to associate the presence of electrical micro stimulation pulses with the correct lever press. Extra training followed …’

This does not prevent these scientists from claiming that this is a step towards the first ‘organic computer’.

The rat population can take care of itself, but what does all this tell us about the two-legged critters conducting these experiments?

There is no mention of these rats having emotions or feelings that might work in conjunction with their cognitions, as they do in humans. To understand that they’d have to forsake the celebrity of the brain and place it in its somatic and social context.

Nor is there recognition that rats are highly social animals and that their intelligence (their ‘brain’) is social too. That’s one reason they are one of the most successful mammals in the natural selection stakes and therefore the most numerous.

All this matters because what scientists first do to other animals they eventually do to us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s