The Fantasy of Connecting Two Spinal Cords

By Neuroskeptic | February 17, 2017 2:03 pm

A peculiar new paper proposes the idea of “connecting two spinal cords as a way of sharing information between two brains”. The author is Portuguese psychiatrist Amílcar Silva-dos-Santos and the paper appears in Frontiers in Psychology.

Frontiers are a publisher with a troubled history of publishing dubious science. But this paper is unusual, even by Frontiers’ standards, because it contains virtually no science at all.

In a nutshell, Silva-Dos-Santos suggests that it would be interesting to wire together the spinal cords of two rats. He offers little detail as to how this surgery would be carried out, and his description as to the likely results of the procedure is pure science fiction.


Silva-dos-Santos states that after “connecting” two rats, injecting one rat with a drug that triggers seizures (PTZ) would cause the other rat to experience seizures as well, because “electrical information that codifies the seizures” would somehow transferred to the second rat’s brain.

But there’s no reason to think this would happen. What would happen would depend on where the stimulating electrodes were placed in the second rat’s spinal cord. If the stimulation was applied to the motor tracts, then the second rat might, I suppose, appear to have a seizure, as its muscles would effectively be receiving random inputs. But its brain would not show seizure-related activity. If the stimulation targeted the spinal sensory pathways, the unfortunate second rat would experience a barrage of sensations, but again, not a seizure.

Later in the paper Silva-dos-Santos wanders even further into the realm of speculation, suggesting that mental illness could be treated via spinal stimulation: “complex biological activity codifying relaxation can be recorded on an electronic device and then sent to the spinal cord of an individual with anxiety”. Indeed, he says, in the future this method could help “insomnia, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anorexia, obesity, and emotional instability due to personality disorder (just to name a few).”

The misunderstanding here seems to be that the spinal cord is the brain’s all-purpose information relay. It’s not. The spinal cord has a very specific job: it carries touch and pain sensations to the brain and carries motor impulses to the muscles. It’s not nature’s USB port through which one could reprogram the brain.

So how did this get published? I note that two peer reviewers are listed, and they both list their affiliation as the University of Lisbon – which also happens to be Silva-dos-Santos’s university. This may not be against Frontiers rules, but many people would say it’s not best practice.

ResearchBlogging.orgSilva-Dos-Santos A (2017). The Hypothesis of Connecting Two Spinal Cords as a Way of Sharing Information between Two Brains and Nervous Systems. Frontiers in psychology, 8 PMID: 28197119

CATEGORIZED UNDER: animals, papers, select, Top Posts, woo
  • Leonid Schneider

    Indeed, the spinal cord is not nature’s USB port. But at the end of it, and slightly below, is a suitable cavity which can accommodate this Frontiers paper.
    Seriously though, I gave up on the crazy idea to ask Frontiers Editors-in-Chief to explain all this recurrent pseudoscience which their journals publish. The EiC here is Axel Cleeremans, professor of psychology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels. Maybe Neursceptic can get him to say anything.

  • smut clyde

    I skimmed the paper, wondering where the “communication” between two spinal columns comes in, and the “sharing information”, and the short answer is that it doesn’t.

    The spinal cord electrode will be implanted into the epidural space of the dorsal column of thoracic vertebrae 2 (T2) as described by Yadav et al. (2014).

    Yadev et al. were describing a DCS technique (dorsal column stimulation), with weak AC current from an intrathecal electrode to stimulate the afferent pathways —

    continuous high frequency electrical stimulation was delivered to the large superficial fibers

    — that is, no information is transferred.

    Perhaps Silva-dos-Santos wants to modulate the HF stimulation, or skip the carrier wave altogether and just run current through the intrathecal electrode according to neural activity in the “transmitter” rat (and just didn’t explain it). But there’s no nerve-to-nerve linkage! Just a broadband “white-noise” electrocution of the entire dorsal pathways!

  • smut clyde

    I think I see the problem. Silva-dos-Santos was inspired by, and cites, the work of Pais-Veiera &c (2016). Those authors were injecting rats with metrazol to induce convulsions, but trying to *disrupt* those convulsions with spinal afferent-pathway stimulation. The stimulation (from an implanted electrode) was in turn triggered by brain electrodes that detected when a convulsion was starting — so the spinal electrode only turns on when needed.

    Very much like Crichton’s 1972 proposal (though without the positive-feedback loop and the violence), but this was in Sci.Reps so the authors had to sex it up and call it a Brain-Machine Interface to pretend that the idea was novel.

    Now it may be that Silva-dos-Santos believes that because the rats recieved intraperitoneal metrazol injections, then the convulsions must have somehow started in the guts — or with somatic signals passing up the spine — and therefore, if you simulate those same somatic signals, you can induce convulsions without the metrazol.

    You and I know that this is not how GABA-antagonists work, but really it is the only explanation I can thnk of for what Silva-dos-Santos expects to happen.

  • William Herrera

    I wonder if this is just a really badly written and translated speculative extension of this paper, on experimental dorsal column stimulation for epilepsy, from I think a related institution:

    • smut clyde

      The paper is definitely *inspired* by Pais-Vieiral and Yaval’s papers on DCS, and cites them; the author has just misunderstood everything, and contributed no empirical results.

      Those Pais-Vieiral / Yaval papers seem to be reasonable enough — extensions of a research direction that’s about 50 years old — but they have insanely over-hyped, headline-whoring titles like “Building an organic computing device with multiple interconnected brains”… “a Monkey Brainet”… “A brain-to-brain interface for real-time sharing of sensorimotor information”… “A Closed Loop Brain-machine Interface”. So a lot of the blame attaches to ‘Scientific Reports’ for publishing those authors’ press releases, thereby inspiring Silva-Dos-Santos to play Me-too with his hand-waving piece of piffle in Frontiers.

  • NZ

    from here:

    ” So, I woke up and wrote the entire protocol including all the steps to
    built the connection wire. I went to the lab in the morning, I built the
    wires and I set up the experiments. Using animals with very old
    implants in the brain and spinal cord that was going to be euthanized, I
    tried the connection of the two spinal cords and it worked. I repeated
    the experiment more 2 times in 2 different days. I didn´t tell anyone
    until the end of February of 2014 because I was planning to gather more
    data. Unfortunately, I had to come to Portugal in March of 2014, and by
    the time I told the lab members about these experiments it was too late.
    I was informed that I could not publish those data. That is why I
    publish the paper as a hypothesis.”

    Really strange…

    • Neuroskeptic

      Hmm, thanks! The plot thickens.

  • Tatiana Covington

    Never say “never”.

  • John James

    Wow, this guy!
    Indeed, to come to the conclusion that connecting two spinal cords together could effectively, somehow, help with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, insomnia, anorexia, and other such disorders is pure fantasy.For this to happen the brain to have to be linked, not the spinal cords, axons connecting neurotransmitters send messages in one direction(down the axon to the dendrites) never in reverse. Furthermore,being able to complete this feat of science fiction means mapping the intricate pathways of nerves in the spinal cord and even creating new pathways to neurotransmitters in the brain to receive the information from the other spinal cord. In the case of schizophrenia it is believed that damage to the prefrontal cortex in infancy and early childhood causes this disorder. That being so, connecting to brains via spinal cord would have no effect on this disorder because the brain, after damage cells die,do not regenerate or create new cells.

    • RobertJ

      Maybe Mr. John James misunderstood what the author means. The paper states that instead of delivering simple stimulus to the spinal cord, complex stimulus coming from an electronic device can be delivered to the spinal cord to treat some psychiatric conditions. This seems to be based on the notion that a complex neural code might be transferred from one spinal cord to another one. From the paper: “Regarding the applications of the notion of spinal cord – spinal cord connection to the fields of psychology, psychiatry and mental health, I speculate that, for example, a complex biological activity codifying relaxation can be recorded on an electronic device and then sent to the spinal cord of an individual with anxiety. On Table 1 there is a list of the same rationale applied to modulate, study or treat different conditions such as anxiety, insomnia, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anorexia, obesity, and emotional instability due to personality disorder (just to name a few). Due to ethical issues, I do not consider possible applications of real-time spinal cord – spinal cord connection for psychiatric conditions in humans. Instead, the sender neural code should come from an electronic device.”

  • usvascularcenter

    Two spinal cored connection seems to be a new idea in the field of health. Quite impressive post it is. Thanks.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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