This news story has been around for almost a month now but I’m sure there are people who have not encountered it yet, not everyone follows science and technology news. Researchers at the University of Reading in the UK are experimenting with controlling a simple robot with cultures of rat neurons, that’s cool. Rather than attempting to create our hyper intelligent organic/machine successors however these experiments appear to be directed towards understanding brain function and how neurons deal with changes to their environment and cope with disrupting influences. In this way we may make advances in degenerative brain disorders and disruptive syndromes such as Alzheimer’s and epilepsy.
The idea is that if they can connect neurons to an interactive system such as a robot they can then determine how throwing a spanner in the works affects learning and motor control. To do this the researchers remove the cortical material from a rat fetus and reduce it to individual neurons in solution. Once this is achieved they can then introduce the electrodes to a set of approximately 300,000 of the neurons and allow them to grow and make connections between themselves. At this point the neurons begin communicating in earnest and patterns of activity can be seen. The cells are now connected to the output of an ultrasonic sensor and are exposed to the sensor’s electrical output and the teaching begins. Actually, it is difficult to say whether true learning is taking place as the cells are simply monitored for their response to repeated stimulus and repeatable responses are then used to make the robot turn to avoid an obstacle. Once the culture has been “trained” in this way they can alter it chemically, electrically or physically to upset this controllability, they hope to be able to work out some causes and effects that throw light on the disorders mentioned above.
Interesting and enlightening as this work is, I think that for shear creepy coolness it is surpassed by somewhat related research performed in 2002 at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center that implanted electrodes into a rat to manipulate it’s movement, creating in effect a remote controlled rat. I want one of those.