In recent years, scientists have shown that by recording the electrical activity of groups of neurons in key areas of the brain they could read a rat’s thoughts of where it was, both after it actually ran the maze and also later when it would dream of running the maze in its sleep – a key process in consolidating its memory. In the new study, several of the scientists involved in pioneering such mind-reading methods now report they can read out those signals in real-time as the rat runs the maze, with a high degree of accuracy and the ability to account for the statistical relevance of the readings almost instantly after they are made.
The ability to so robustly track the rat’s spatial representations in real-time opens the door to a whole new class of experiments, the researchers said. They predict these experiments will produce new insights into learning, memory, navigation and cognition by allowing them to not only decode rat thinking as it happens, but also to instantaneously intervene and study the effects of those perturbations.
“The use of real-time decoding and closed-loop control of neural activity will fundamentally transform our studies of the brain,” said study co-author Matthew Wilson, Sherman Fairchild Professor in Neurobiology in MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.