It's not every day that science and crazy brain implants lead to the generation of what is essentially a new sense, but it is that day today. Scientists from Duke University have found a way to make rats "feel" invisible infrared light and someday that same tech could give sight to the blind, or give us humans extras senses for fun.
In the experiment published in Nature, rats were first taught to respond to one of three normal, visible lights by sticking their noses into a little port that corresponded with the illuminated light. Then, the researchers implanted small, infrared-detecting microelectrodes -- each roughly a tenth of the diameter of a human hair -- into the part of the mice's brains that parses touch. Right after the implantation, the mice reacted to infrared stimulus by rubbing their faces, indicating that they were "feeling" the light, but eventually they learned to respond to it exactly how they'd responded to the visible lights in earlier tests. Something akin to "seeing" it or "feeling" it but not quite either.
Aside from giving the mice a literal (and awesome) sixth sense -- the first time a brain-machine interface has been able to do that in adult animals, according to researchers -- this kind of implantation could be used to restore something like sight to blind people who have problems with their visual cortex. While their brain may never be able to process sight like a normal person, implants in another, still-working part of the brain could create something functionally similar, whether it's reliant on infrared light, magnetic fields, or something else entirely. And hey, if we ever want superpowers, this is a decent place to start. [BBC]