Lab Rats

In my third grade science class we had two lab rats to study the affects of a well-balanced diet compared to a less-ideal one. Everyone in the class knew what the results were going to be, but sometimes, in different settings, there is only a projected outcome, which we call a hypothesis, but could just as easily be called a hope.  Occasionally, these hopes produce life-changing results.

As an ex pre-veterinary student who wanted to spend the rest of her life in a lab, scientific innovations interest me, specifically when they apply to health. Less than 100 years ago people with diabetes were doomed to die from the disease and smallpox had not yet been eradicated. Obviously, medical innovations are relevant to our lives.

Lab rats at Duke University were given a sixth sense that shows promises in human advancement. First, I will explain what the sixth sense was and how they achieved it.

The sixth sense was the ability to respond to invisible light. Nature Communications reports that the light is invisible to rats because rats can only see light of 650 nm or less, while the infrared source used had a wavelength of 940 nm.

Humans can see the light of a little greater wavelength than rats can, but the spectrums are basically the same. The visibility of light is dependent upon how fast the frequency is and how well the light scatters against the particles in the sky. These particles can be fog or dust.

They trained the rats to first react to LED lights, which are visible, by rewarding them with water when they went to the port displaying the light. It took roughly 25 days to train them to consistently choose the correct port and learn that they got rewarded for this behavior.

According to Mobile Magazine when they learned this behavior, they were then implanted with stimulating electrodes in the primary somatosensory cortex inside the whiskers that were connected to an infrared sensor on the rat’s forehead. The somatosensory cortex is where the signals sensitive to touch are processed.

The new experiment was to switch out the visible LED lights with invisible infrared ones. These infrared lights would register on the rat’s sensor, which would be sent to the whisker region, causing the whiskers to tingle. At first when the infrared light was introduced, the rats didn’t know how to react to the new sense. They would scratch at their whiskers in response to the stimulation and would randomly guess at which port contained the water. The rats gradually learned that if they swept their heads back and forth they could locate the source of the stimuli and receive a nice drink.

Now that you understand what the sixth sense was, let’s look at how this affects science. The implications of this discovery are far reaching. BBC News says that if these experiments are progressed and altered this could, theoretically, allow a human with a damaged visual cortex to regain sight. The reason the experiment needs to be progressed is because this is a very new development, and could be made more efficient. One area of improvement would be the sensor. The sensor’s range of reception could definitely be improved and also there is the complication of it being strapped onto your forehead. The major alteration in this experiment of course would be to implant the electrodes into the corresponding area in the brain.

Nature Communications goes on to say that the technology used for this experiment can be applied to prosthetics. Implanting electrodes can allow prosthetic limbs to provide a continuous sensory feedback from the brain to the prosthetic. This is a big deal because currently this is unavailable, and the patient cannot sense whatever their prosthetic limb is touching. This research could also be applied to augment the normal perceptual range. Maybe one day we’ll be given the ability to see gamma rays.

The ability for rats to respond to infrared light foreshadows great advances in science. Eventually, our third grade science classes might be reproducing this experiment instead of changing their diets. With the hope, of course, to give the rat a new sense.


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