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Bionic Whiskers Could Teach Humans A New Sense

Have you even wondered  what life would be like if you could SEE with your BEARD? No? Us neither, until we came across a paper released recently in the Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers at the Weizmann Institute in Israel are teaching blindfolded subjects an entirely new sense, similar to the one rats and mice use to orient themselves in space with their whiskers. To bring about this new form of sensory input in humans, they’re using a set of bionic whiskers made for people.

The “whiskers” developed by researchers are pretty simple devices — one foot long elastic strings that are attached to a subjects fingers. The base of each cord is made up of two sensors — one that reads force, and another that gives subjects a sense of position. When the end of the whisker touches another object — like a pole — it transmits data back to the sensors, and thus the user, helping them to judge where they are in relationship to the object.

Blindfolded subjects picked up on their new feelers as a way to determine where they were pretty quickly. They were able to judge whether a pole was in front of or behind them after just one day, and after two days of blindfolded practice, they were able to tell how far behind or in front of them an object was within a couple of centimeters. That’s a blindsight learning curve that would even make Daredevil jealous.

While giving everybody a whole new set of senses — even one that necessitates the wearing of a bionic hair suit — is a noble endeavor, it’s also a rather ambitious one. In the near term, researchers are looking to find ways to assist blind patients with the technology, using whiskers to supplement existing implants and perhaps giving the visually impaired a new way of seeing things — even if it’s technically not “seeing.”

(via Weizmann Institute)

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