Rat-Brain Controlled Robots

Published: 15th January 2010
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Finally its reality. What was considered as imagination, is part of our world now. The era of brain controlled robots has just set up.

AFTER buttoning up a lab coat, snapping on surgical gloves and spraying them with alcohol, I am deemed sanitary enough to view a robot's control system up close. Without such precautions, any fungal spores on my skin could infect it. "We've had that happen. They just stop working and die off," says Mark Hammond, the system's architect.

This is no normal robot control system - a plain old microchip connected to a circuit board. Instead, the controller nestles inside a small pot containing a pink broth of nutrients and antibiotics. Inside that pot, some 300,000 rat neurons have made - and continue to make - connections with each other.

As they do so, the disembodied neurons are communicating, sending electrical signals to one another just as they do in a living creature. We know this because the network of neurons is connected at the base of the pot to 80 electrodes, and the voltages sparked by the neurons are grandstand on a computer screen.

It's these down electrical patterns that researchers at the University of Reading in the UK want to harness to determination a robot. If they can do so reliably, by stimulating the neurons with signals from sensors on the robot and using the neurons' retort to get the robots to respond, they hope to gain insights into how brains function. Such insights might help in the treatment of conditions like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease and epilepsy.

"We're trying to understand what is going on inside this brain material that could have direct implications for human health," says Kevin Warwick, Reading's head of cybernetics, who is running the project with Hammond and Ben Whalley, both neuroscientists.

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