New research in the field of optics offers high hopes for blind people due to a successful experiment promising to advance efforts further than other experts reached so far.

Scientists succeeded in providing sensory input to rats by connecting their brains directly to some tiny digital compasses. The journal Current Biology has published the discovery and sparked some real interest in creating a strange sixth sense in sighted humans. Apparently, they could broaden their senses in order to detect ultrasound waves and ultraviolet radiation.

A team of Japanese researchers endeavored to experiment with adult rats whose eyes were sewn shut simulating blindness. Then their visual cortex was connected to a digital compass, similar to the ones used in smartphones.

The experiment meant the compass was to be connected to a microstimulator, which in turn emitted different electrical signals. At the receiving end, the rat’s visual cortex caught the signals and guided the rat when pointing north or south; therefore, they could essentially “see” via geomagnetic signals.

Without the compass, the rats could not find their way inside the mazes. However, after the compass was attached, it took them only a few days to get used to the way geomagnetic information helped them solve the mazes. Remarkable results showed their performance levels almost reached the standard set by normally sighted rats.

Yuji Ikegaya from the University of Tokyo who co-authored the study said in a statement that the team was surprised to see the rats adapting to the new sense without being “explained” how to use it, and implementing it in solving behavioral tasks in a matter of two or three days.

According to Ikegaya, what the paper tried to show is the immeasurable, albeit latent, capacity of the brain to adapt. The fact that adult rats were used in the experiments pointed to the flexibility of the mammalian brain – even in adulthood. The already developed brain did not stop learning to incorporate a new and never-experienced-before modality into the task at hand.

One obvious application of the study’s findings is the help that it brings to blind people through the attachment of a geomagnetic sensor to walking canes. This, however, is only a small part of what the researchers thought of.

According to their demonstrations, this type of technology might also be used to broaden our senses. Further research could also help humans read and interpret information gleaned from ultrasound waves, ultraviolet radiation – signals not yet detected by our brains.

Reality might gain some new colors if we will learn to be assisted into using our brain to fuller capacity.

Image Source: Humane Research