When a microstimulator and geomagnetic compass were attached to the brains of blind rats, researchers found that the rodents learned to use new information about their location, and navigate through a maze nearly as well as normally sighted rats.
Japanese experiment suggests a future neuroprosthesis might help blind people walk freely in the world
This discovery suggests that a similar kind of neuroprosthesis for humans might one day help the visually impaired walk freely through the world.
One of the highlights from the study was the details surrounding the remarkable flexibility of the mammalian brain.
“The most remarkable point of this paper is to show the potential, or the latent ability, of the brain,” says Yuji Ikegaya of the University of Tokyo. “That is, we demonstrated that the mammalian brain is flexible even in adulthood — enough to adaptively incorporate a novel, never-experienced, non-inherent modality into the pre-existing information sources.”
Ikegaya went on to explain that the brains of the animals they studied were ready and willing to fill in “the ‘world’ drawn by the five senses” with a new sensory input.
It’s worth noting that it was never the intention of Ikegaya and his colleague Hiroaki Norimoto to restore vision; rather, they wanted to restore the blind rats’ allocentric sense. For those unfamiliar, the allocentric sense is what allows animals and people to recognize the position of their body within the environment. Ikegaya and Norimoto wanted to know what would happen if the animals could “see” a geomagnetic signal. Specifically, would this signal fill in for the animals’ lost sight, and would the animals know what to do with the information?