A new study from two neuroscientists at Rochester University is the subject of a New York Times article this week, which describes their apparently successful efforts to “‘inject’ information into monkeys’ brains.”
To study the premotor cortex, doctors Kevin Mazurek and Marc Schieber “trained two rhesus monkeys to play a game,” the Times reports:
The monkeys sat in front of a panel equipped with a button, a sphere-shaped knob, a cylindrical knob, and a T-shaped handle. Each object was ringed by LED lights. If the lights around an object switched on, the monkeys had to reach out their hand to it to get a reward — in this case, a refreshing squirt of water.
Each object required a particular action. If the button glowed, the monkeys had to push it. If the sphere glowed, they had to turn it. If the T-shaped handle or cylinder lit up, they had to pull it.
After the monkeys learned how to play the game, Dr. Mazurek and Dr. Schieber had them play a wired version. The scientists placed 16 electrodes in each monkey’s brain, in the premotor cortex.
Each time a ring of lights switched on, the electrodes transmitted a short, faint burst of electricity. The patterns varied according to which object the researchers wanted the monkeys to manipulate.
As the monkeys played more rounds of the game, the ring of lights dimmed. At first, the dimming caused the monkeys to make mistakes. But then their performance improved.
Eventually, the lights went out completely, yet the monkeys were able to use only the signals from the electrodes in their brains to pick the right object and manipulate it for the reward. And they did just as well as with the lights.
This hints that the sensory regions of the brain, which process information from the environment, can be bypassed altogether. The brain can devise a response by receiving information directly, via electrodes.
The Times reports that “the researchers speculated that further research might lead to brain implants for people with strokes,” or “that someday scientists might be able to use such advanced electrodes to help people who suffer brain damage.” Other, decidedly more sinister applications for such technologies, however, might be of interest to parties such as the U.S. government.
In particular, Mazurek and Schieber’s work resembles that of Jose Delgado, an infamous 20th century scientist whose work with electrode-implanted animals and advocacy for “physical control of the mind” was an inspiration for Central Intelligence Agency mind control research under programs such as the notorious Operation MK-Ultra, which eventually included attempts to incite violence in human subjects through similar methods.
MK-Ultra and related projects generated great controversy when first exposed in the 1970s, and officially, the CIA ended its mind control programs as a result. Yet the quest for the so-called “super soldier” is nonetheless alive and well today. At the same time, the U.S. military reportedly successfully tested “electrical brain stimulators” last year to “boost the performance” of drone operators.
Mazurek and Schieber may genuinely hope their work is only put to positive uses, like helping stroke and brain damage victims, but the potential for abuse of such technology also seems clear. If the ability to “inject information” directly into the brain can be beneficial, it would also appear capable of allowing something akin to the “mind control” concept that has so intensely fascinated elements of the U.S. national security establishment and intelligence community over the years. In any case, it’s worth keeping an eye on these two Rochester University scientists’ work to see where it goes from here.