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Scientists Hacked Monkey Brains to Electronically Control Their Decisions

Published: May 29, 2014
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Source: Motherboard

While your brain should still be safe from hackers for some time yet, a new study, in which macaques had their choices controlled by electrical impulses, adds to a growing body of work that suggests brains can be manipulated with a surprising degree of precision.

Using electrodes implanted in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a region deep in the brain associated with the reward circuitry of the brain, researchers were able to fundamentally influence the decision making of macaques. The work was published today in Current Biology.

The study, conducted by a joint team from KU Leuven in Belgium, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard Medical School, consisted first of an A/B test in which macaques were shown a pair of images, and their preference for one or the other recorded. Some monkeys might prefer a picture of a ball, others a star, but in any case, the research team was able to glean a baseline preference for each individual.

Then came the big test: Could electrical microstimulation affect the results? Indeed, by applying small, regular electrical impulses to the VTA, the team "was capable of selectively reinforcing and motivating behavior during operant and Pavlovian conditioning paradigms." In other words, after flipping the switch, macaques that preferred image A picked image B, and vice versa.

I asked Wim Vanduffel, a co-author of the report, if the results suggest that electronically-controlled decision making is possible, to which he emailed, "Certainly so!

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