University of Reading scientists say an unlikely source – a blob of rat brain cells – controls a robot, a process that could provide clues into diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Meet Gordon, the world’s first robot controlled exclusively by living brain tissue.
The groundbreaking experiment of the neuron-powered machine explores the vanishing boundary between natural and artificial intelligence. One of the lead researchers said it sheds light on the fundamental building blocks of memory and learning.
The project marries 300,000 rat neurons to a robot that navigates via sonar.
The neurons are now being taught to steer the robot around obstacles and avoid the walls of the small pen in which it is kept. By studying what happens to the neurons as they learn, its creators hope to reveal how memories are laid down.
“The purpose is to figure out how memories are actually stored in a biological brain,” said Kevin Warwick, a professor at the University of Reading and one of the robot’s principle architects.
Observing how the nerve cells turn into a network as they fire off electrical impulses may also help scientists combat neurodegenerative diseases that attack the brain such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
“If we can understand some of the basics of what is going on in our little model brain, it could have enormous medical spin-offs,” he said.
Gordon looks like the garbage-compacting hero of the blockbuster animation “Wall-E”; his brain is composed of 50,000 to 100,000 active neurons.
Once removed from rat fetuses and disentangled from each other with an enzyme bath, the specialized nerve cells are laid out in a nutrient-rich medium across a five-by-five inch array of 60 electrodes.
This “multi-electrode array” (MEA) serves as the connection between living tissue and machine. The brain sends electrical impulses to drive the wheels of the robots, and receiving impulses delivered by sensors reacting to the environment.
The cells are living tissue, and are therefore kept separate from the robot in a temperature-controlled cabinet in a container pitted with electrodes.
Scientists transmit signals to the robot via Bluetooth short-range radio.
Once the robot can learn to steer, researchers plan to disrupt the memories in an effort to recreate the gradual loss of mental faculties seen in diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
They want to know how neural tissue is degraded or copes with the disruption.
“One of the fundamental questions that neuroscientists are facing today is how we link the activity of individual neurons to the complex behaviors that we see in whole organisms and whole animals,” said Dr Ben Whalley, a neuroscientist at Reading.
“This project gives us a really useful and unique opportunity to look at something that may exhibit whole behaviors but still remains closely tied to the activity of individual neurons,” he said.
The Reading team is not the first to use living tissue to control robots.
Dr. Steve Potter at the Georgia Institute of Technology pioneered work in 2003 on what he dubbed “hybrots” that connected neural tissue and robots.
On the Net: