Scientists In Japan Work Towards Creating Robo-Bugs

July 14, 2009

Japanese scientists are involved in groundbreaking research to understand and then rebuild the brains of insects and program them for specific tasks, AFP reported.

After studying insect brains for three decades, Ryohei Kanzaki, a professor at Tokyo University’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, has become a pioneer in the field of insect-machine hybrids.

Kanzaki has been studying insects’ “micro-brains” in order to move closer to his original and ultimate goal of understanding human brains enough to restore connections damaged by diseases and accidents.

While the human brain contains around 100 billion neurons, or nerve cells, that transmit signals and prompt the body to react to stimuli, insects have far fewer””about 100,000 inside the 0.08 inch brain of a silkmoth.

However, Kanzaki points out that insects’ tiny brains can control complex aerobatics such as catching another bug while flying, something he says is proof that they are “an excellent bundle of software” finely honed by hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

A male silkmoth, for instance, can track down females from more than a half a mile away by sensing their odor, or pheromone.

Kanzaki told AFP he hopes to artificially recreate insect brains.

“Supposing a brain is a jigsaw-puzzle picture, we would be able to reproduce the whole picture if we knew how each piece is shaped and where it should go,” he said.

He believes it will one day be possible to recreate an insect brain with electronic circuits, which would lead to controlling a real brain by modifying its circuits.

Kanzaki’s team has already succeeded in genetically modifying a male silkmoth so that it reacts to light instead of odor, or to the odor of a different kind of moth.

The professor said modifications such as these move his team closer to creating a robo-bug that could, in the future, sense illegal drugs several miles away, as well as landmines, people buried under rubble, or toxic gas.

Kanzaki and colleagues have even created insect-robot hybrid machines that they have been working on for more than decade.

One experiment involves a live male moth that is strapped onto a free-moving, battery-driven device, in which the moth’s back is glued securely to the frame while its legs move across a free-spinning ball.

The insect can then be motivated to turn left or right by using female odor. It can even steer the car and quickly adapt to changes in the way the vehicle operates.

A more advanced experiment involves a severed moth’s head that is mounted onto the front of a similar vehicle, where the same odor stimuli is picked up by the insect’s still-functioning antennae and brain and used to direct the contraption.

The motor commands issued by nerve cells in the brain are transmitted to steer the vehicle in real time. The team also observed which neuron responds to which stimulus, making them visible using fluorescent markers and 3-D imaging.

So far, data has been obtained on 1,200 neurons””one of the world’s best collections on a single species, and Kanzaki believes that animals, like humans, are proving to be highly adaptable to changing conditions and environments.

He noted how the human brain turns a motor vehicle into an extension of our body, adding that an insect brain may be able to drive a car like we can.

“I think they have the potential,” he said.

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