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Blind Rats Can 'See' Like Daredevil in a Maze

Apr 07, 2015 11:09 AM EDT

New-age nerds may have become a bit disenchanted with the superhero known as Daredevil after his latest Hollywood flop, but diehard fans of "the man without fear" still know that he has one of the coolest superpowers out there. Now researchers are showing that rodents can have this superpower too, as blind rats can still "see" where they are going in a maze with a little help from sensor tech.

And what's even more amazing is that these mice wound up finding their way around that maze with equal, or even better precision than seeing mice.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, which details how researchers at the University of Tokyo set out to test how allocentric sense - the awareness of one's body relative to its environment - can replace standard vision.

So how did they go about this? According to the study, investigators equipped a group of blind lab rats with small geomagnetic compasses and an array of sensors that indicated head direction relative to the compass. This allowed the rats to know which direction they were pointing their head toward even when they could not actually see which direction or landmark they were facing.

"These 'blind' rats were trained to seek food pellets in a T-shaped maze or a more complicated maze," the research team explained in their published work. "Within tens of trials, they learned to manage the geomagnetic information source to solve the mazes."

What's more, "their performance levels and navigation strategies were similar to those of normal sighted, intact rats," they added.

What makes this such an intriguing idea is that it may be a novel approach for helping blind human patients navigate their homes or even streets today, as the rats show how mammals like us can be taught this ability. (Scroll to read on...)

Dolphins are one group of mammals that researchers have recently found to use magnetoreception - the ability to perceive a magnetic field - for special orientation, especially when swimming through dark, vast oceans. However, prior to being outfitted with the sensors, these rats did not share that trait. Humans likewise - as far as we know - do not have strong magnetisensitiveity, but if equipped with a similar sensor array, the visually impaired could hope to 'know' their surroundings once more.

That's not unlike Daredevil himself, the blind superhero who supposedly uses his super-boosted remaining senses (perhaps even magnetisensitiveity?) to 'see' the world better than most.

However, it is important to note that just like "the man without fear," the rats in this study initially could see, helping enforce a strong understanding of spatial awareness.

That, co-author Yuji Ikegaya, who wrote in an email to The New York Times, could be one limitation of this tech even for humans. Meaning those who are born blind may take much longer to understand the nature of the tech's sensory cues.

Still, as things stand, the researcher has hope.

"The most plausible application is to attach a geomagnetic sensor to a cane so that the blind can know the direction via tactile signals such as vibration," he explained to the Times.

That, at least, would be a tentative step in the right direction, and with other technologies like electronic eye implants and visual word readers still being investigated by brilliant minds, even the blind can see that their future looks bright.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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