In a remarkable feat reminiscent of Jedi mind tricks, rats have demonstrated the ability to move digital cubes using only their brains, as described in a study published on November 3rd in Science. While it may not be the Force, this telekinetic skill offers valuable insights into how brains can imagine scenarios and recollect past experiences.
Albert Lee, a neuroscientist, and his team explore how the brain can mentally revisit memories and envision future situations, often referred to as “mental time travel.” This capacity contributes to the complexity and richness of our inner mental lives. Lee conducted this study during his time at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia, and is currently an HHMI investigator at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
The study began with a fundamental question: Can an individual be in one place physically while thinking about another place mentally? In this context, rats were trained to navigate a spherical treadmill within a 3-D virtual world displayed on a surrounding screen. Electrodes recorded nerve cell signals in the rats’ hippocampi, brain regions responsible for complex spatial information, among other functions. By matching brain activity patterns with specific locations in the virtual world, researchers aimed to investigate the brain’s ability to navigate mentally.
Subsequently, the researchers assessed whether the rats could use their imaginations to navigate the virtual world. The rats were trained to manipulate a virtual cube mentally, moving it to a designated location on a twisty column solely based on patterns of brain activity in the hippocampus. Successfully maneuvering the cube resulted in a reward of water, and in this experiment, the rats’ physical movements on the treadmill were irrelevant.
With training, the rats displayed proficiency in the task, as confirmed by their brain activity. They could mentally control the cube, holding it near the twisty column for several seconds by activating specific cell patterns in their hippocampi. Additionally, in another task, the rats demonstrated the ability to mentally teleport themselves through the virtual world to reach the twisty column.
This groundbreaking research holds the potential for a deeper understanding of the brain’s mechanisms involved in memory and imagination. It may have applications in diagnosing and treating memory-related disorders, according to Mayank Mehta, a neurophysicist at UCLA, who described the study as “fantastic research” that opens up exciting possibilities.