Cyborg Rat Gets Computerized Cerebellum
Researchers at Tel Aviv University have given a rat an artificial brain part -- the cerebellum -- to restore lost functions, thereby ushering in the era of true brain-to-computer communication for humans.
Matti Mintz, professor of psychobiology, and his colleagues built a computerized cerebellum and linked it to an anesthetized rat whose own cerebellum was disabled. The cerebellum is the round, cue ball-sized structure at the back of the brain that controls how messages get from the brain to the body and back again. Critically, it controls the timing of movement, which is why injuries to the cerebellum cause people to lose their balance or suffer motor control disorders, rather than paralysis. Mintz presented his work at the Strategies for Engineering Negligible Senescence Foundation meeting in Cambridge, England.
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Attaching the synthetic cerebellum to the rat, the scientists tried to condition it to blink at the sound of a tone. To get the rat to blink, they first fired a puff of air at the rat when the tone sounded and then just sounded the tone. The experiment worked: The rat blinked when it heard the sound. When the synthetic cerebellum was disconnected, the rat could not learn the response.
That means they got the artificial cerebellum to receive information from one part of the brain and send it back to another. This is a big advance from previous brain-computer interfaces, such as prosthetic limbs, or computer controls, which send information only one-way.
To figure out what kind of signals to send, the team looked at what a real (rat's) cerebellum does when it gets certain kinds of input signals. They then duplicated the signal when they hooked their artificial one to the rat. (The artificial cerebellum is outside the rat's skull.)
It will be a long time before such a system can be applied to humans, as there is still a lot of work to do in understanding the kinds of signals the cerebellum receives and how they are processed. On top of that, the researchers still haven't tried the system on a conscious animal. But it offers a lot of promise for people who have suffered strokes or brain injuries.
Via New Scientist
Image: Life Science Databases (Wikimedia Commons)