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Rats' Whiskers Inspire New Way to See

Blindfolded subjects were able to successfully use a plastic version of a rat's whisker to help them detect objects. Christie Nicholson reports

Apparently most rats survived hurricane Sandy’s wrath on New York City’s subway tunnels, averting the anticipated Ratpocalypse. Rats are good swimmers, and they’re also really good at navigating with their whiskers, which flick eight times per second as they survey the environment.

Could humans learn to take advantage of this sort of sensory input? To find out, researchers attached a plastic 30 cm-long “whisker” with sensors to the index fingers of blindfolded subjects. And then placed two poles just off to the side and in front of the subject, with one pole slightly closer to the subject.

Using their whiskers, subjects had to judge which pole was further away. By moving their hands together across the front of them they could feel which hand’s whisker touched a pole first, and so they determined which pole was closer to them.

During the first testing day subjects could accurately determine a position difference of 8 cm. By the next day of testing they improved to detect a difference of just 3 cm, with some subjects able to detect a 1 cm difference.

Of course, blind people already use canes to survey their environment. The hand-whisker technique could fine-tune such efforts. 

—Christie Nicholson

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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