Senses other than vision and a range of non-visual navigational cues and mechanisms enable many animals navigate effectively. Could blind people also adapt to using other means of navigation?

When it comes to driving, more and more people these days rely on GPS devices to help them get around. Respectively, our natural orientation abilities are in decline. At the same time, that does not mean our capacities to navigate are worse. Quite opposite, we can now find even the most remote places with relative ease.Technology gave us some extraordinary capabilities, which far exceed limits of our five senses.

Tokyo breakthrough built on research at Duke University (see following video):

GPS implants

The research in the field of neuroprosthetics has a great potential to improve our cognitive abilities and our sensory skills, but it is primarily focused on repairing biological functions and the quality of life of people with certain disabilities.

Studying possible ways to help blind people navigate easily, neuroscientists Hiroaki Norimoto and Yuji Ikegaya at University of Tokyo, Japan, experimented with neuroprosthetic devices with geomagnetic signals that could help visually impaired compensate for the lost sight. They have implanted tiny digital compasses into the brains of blind rats. After several tests conducted in a maze, researchers have recorded amazing results scored by these bionic rats. In a matter of a couple of days, the animals learned how to interpret signals from the digital compasses and find their way around. They were able to “see” almost as good as their peers that were not visually impaired.

Even after the researchers have turned off the signal from the implanted devices, the rats were still able to navigate the maze, which meant that they used the information from the compass to create a mental map of the maze in their brains. Scientists believe similar implants could soon be helping blind people in the same way.

Previous studies, like the one conducted by a team of neurobiologists at Duke University, have shown that the brain can adapt to enhanced sensory repertoire. Scientists have connected infrared cameras to the rats’ primary somatosensory cortex (“the touch cortex”), and then trained them to use the infrared light, normally invisible to them. After 26 days all six rats were able to interpret infrared signs to find the right path. All the time, the rodents’ ability to sense touch was not reduced in any way .

With this experiment, researchers have also proved that any new sensory input could be processed by regions of the brain normally “designated” for something else, without interfering with its usual function. Prof Miguel Nicolelis, the lead author of the study, published in Nature Communications, told to BBC, “We could create devices sensitive to any physical energy. It could be magnetic fields, radio waves, or ultrasound.”

Obviously, in addition to helping the blind “see”, brain implants could pave the way to better understanding of the functioning of our brains, and exploring the ways to enhance human sensory organs. Neuroprothetics could develop devices capable to greatly improve our vision, hearing, memory processing, learning, language acquisition, and more.