A robot controlled by neurons of rat

In the footsteps of Steve Potter, professor of biomedical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta (USA), a pioneer of robots controlled by neurons live (1), the University of Reading in the UK ‘s announce the development of a robot controlled entirely by neurons alive … rats.
Note that although the press has been extensively here to a first, it should be noted that Steve Potter had already cleared the job with his long robot named “Hybrot” – a hybrid of biological and robotic components (our news 04/01/2003 and 08/05/2003).

The scope of connecting neurons living on electrodes has started in 1972, when scientists began to “grow” heart cells in vitro so as to save electric lessignaux. And that since 1979, the U.S. scientists began developing the technology to stimulate and record the signals emitted by neurons cultured in vitro, leading Today the multi electrode array (multi-electrode arrays, or MEA) which, according to Steve Potter, is the key to a better understanding of our brain. “With this kind of device, very simplified version of what happens in the human brain,” you can manipulate neurons much more easily than you can do so on an animal, for example by cutting some connections and see the effects General on signaling … ”

But back to our sheep (or rather our rats) and the announcement by the University of Reading, led by Professor Kevin Warwick, the head of the multidisciplinary team (2) from designing the robot “Gordon “(Right image). Again: this is a robot with a brain half-organic, half-electronics made from neurons from a rat.

Using a chemical solution and electrodes (MEA electrodes 60), researchers have managed to create connections between the neurons initially disassembled, resulting in very simplified equivalent of a brain capable of learn certain behaviors. “Within 24 hours, prompted connections between neurons that were separated, forming a network like a normal brain,” says

Kevin Warwick. “And in one week there was spontaneous electrical impulses and what appeared to be a regular brain activity. “

The device

The nerve cells are placed on the bottom of the Multi Electrode Array (MEA). They develop links between them with each other.
The electrodes embedded in the substrate allow registration of discrete electrical signals produced by the cells.

View microscope: cells (irregularly shaped) grow on the carpet electrode (MEA), creating connections between them. The recording electrical activity is provided by the electrodes (large black circle).

The cultures of neural networks live on the MEA are fed
in a sterile environment (including use of antibiotics), before being put into rings (white rings on the photo) to protect cells influences the environment

This “brain” produces electrical impulses, linked by the robot electrodes, which enables it to control its operation: “We have already given some learning by repetition, it reproduces certain actions,” says the researcher. ” More records of the brain stimulation, more connections between neurons are strengthened. Gordon has learned, for example, to bypass obstacles, to avoid a wall.
According to the scholar, 50,000 to 100,000 are now in neurons in the brain activity of Gordon. By way of comparison, a rat has more than one million, and a man about 100 billion.


Left: the robot is the “body” acting network of neurons.
Gordon is equipped with sonar sensors and light playing the role of sensory input. Output: controlling the wheel speed and direction.

Right: Example of electrical signals detected on an electrode.

Potential applications?

By acting with electrical stimulation and using chemicals, the team would be able to dictate other robot behavior. Researchers hope that as the progress of learning, it will be possible to record how memories and memory occur in the brain when the robot revisits ground known. Thus, according to Kevin Warwick, allowing to follow the reactions of active neurons, to study the workings of memory and the means to control this type of experience could find applications in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson .. “We want to understand how memories are stored in a biological brain, compared with a computer brain” (…) “Our work together with a report in Alzheimer On the storage memory and how we can strengthen, for example by increasing the electrical stimuli, “he says.

For our part, note that ultimately the key question is whether, with such a device, we really understand a day how the human brain faculties. Keep in mind that this is a very poor model. A mid-biological coupling, mid-electronics, is not really alive. Even then that the robot is equipped with an endocrine system …
And as for using human neural Gordon …. here would raise profound ethical issue.

(1) See Steve Potter et al., “The neurally controlled animat: biological brains acting with Simulated Bodies,” in Autonomous Robots 11: 305-310. Http://www.neuro.gatech.edu/groups/potter/papers / AutonRobots.pdf
(2) Collaboration between the Department of Systems Engineering and the Department of Pharmacy at the University of Reading. The team has 8 researchers: Elio Caccavale, Mark Hammond, Dimitris Xydas, Julia Downes, Ben Whalley, Victor Becerra, Slawomir Jaroslaw Nasuto, Kevin Warwick

For more information:
Press release from the University of Reading (in English): http://www.reading.ac.uk/about/newsandevents/releases/PR16530.asp
Video: Interview with Kevin Warwick and Ben Whalley: