Digital Compass Helps Blind Rats 'See'

Findings suggest putting similar device in canes that blind people use might improve mobility

From the WebMD Archives

By Robert Preidt

HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, April 2, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- New research in rats suggests a special compass might one day help blind people navigate their physical environments.

Using a head-mounted device, Japanese scientists attached a microstimulator and a digital compass to the brains of blind rats, and those rats were then able to move through mazes nearly as well as rats with normal vision.

The compass automatically detected the rat's head direction and generated electrical pulses that indicated which direction -- such as north or south -- the rat was facing.

The blind rats were then trained to seek food in a T-shaped maze or a more complicated maze. With practice, the rats learned to use the device to solve the mazes, and their performance rivaled that of rats with normal vision.

The findings suggest that a similar system could help orient blind people, the University of Tokyo researchers said. In the case of humans, the device could be attached to the canes blind people typically use for walking around, the researchers said.

It should be noted, however, that animal research findings do not always translate to humans.

The study was published April 2 in the journal Current Biology.

"We were surprised that rats can comprehend a new sense that had never been experienced or 'explained by anybody' and can learn to use it in behavioral tasks within only two to three days," lead researcher Yuji Ikegaya said in a journal news release.

The results suggest that it may be possible to use such sensors to improve blind people's mobility, the researchers added.

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SOURCE: Current Biology, news release, April 2, 2015

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