A multidisciplinary team at the University of Reading has developed a robot which is controlled by a biological brain formed from cultured rat brain neurones. This cutting edge research is the first step to examine how memories manifest themselves in the brain, and how a brain stores specific pieces of data. The key aim is that eventually this will lead to a better understanding of development and of diseases and disorders which affect the brain such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, stoke and brain injury.
The robot's biological brain is made up of cultured neurones which are placed onto a multi electrode array (MEA). The MEA is a dish with approximately 60 electrodes which pick up the electrical signals generated by the cells. This is then used to drive the movement of the robot. Every time the robot nears an object, signals are directed to stimulate the brain by means of the electrodes. In response, the brain's output is used to drive the wheels of the robot, left and right, so that it moves around in an attempt to avoid hitting objects. The robot has no additional control from a human or a computer, its sole means of control is from its own brain.
The researchers are now working towards getting the robot to learn by applying different signals as it moves into predefined positions. It is hoped that as the learning progresses, it will be possible to witness how memories manifest themselves in the brain when the robot revisits familiar territory."
According to New Scientist:
"..... 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 displayed on a computer screen.
It's these spontaneous electrical patterns that researchers at the University of Reading in the UK want to harness to control a robot. If they can do so reliably, by stimulating the neurons with signals from sensors on the robot and using the neurons' response 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."
"The rat neuron "brain" is able to issue instructions to its robot "body" thanks to its bank of electrodes.
The field of in-vitro recording and stimulation kicked off in 1972 when scientists cultured heart cells on laboratory glassware embedded with electrodes that could record the cells' electrical signals. In 1979, researchers in the US tweaked the technology to stimulate signals as well as record them from nerve cells, or neurons - leading ultimately to the multi-electrode arrays in use today. "MEAs are definitely our enabling technology," says Steve Potter at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
The devices mean researchers can work with a very simplified version of a brain in the lab, Potter says. "You can manipulate neurons much more easily than you can in an animal - cutting connections to see what effect that has on the signalling."
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