Rat Robotsby Amanda Onion
Scientists Develop Remote-Controlled Rats
These aren't the latest gadgets in high-tech toys, but living and breathing rats - designed and trained to respond to an operator's commands. The rats, each wired with three hair-fine electrical probes to their brains, can be directed through remote control by an operator typing commands on a computer up to 500 meters (1,640 feet) away.
The latest feat in brain-machine interfaces was developed by Sanjiv Talwar at the State University of New York and colleagues with an eye toward crafting artificial limbs that not only respond to a user's commands, but also transmit back a sense of touch.
"The animal is not only doing something - it's feeling something," said Talwar. "So with the same technology you have a closed loop system - a sensory prosthesis."
He suggests the rats might also be used as scouts for search and rescue teams looking for survivors amid rubble or for sniffing out hidden land mines. Unlike clunky machines, Talwar points out that rats have the ability to travel adeptly over rough terrain and might be more easily deployed in chaotic environments.
Building a RatbotAs described in a report in this week's issue of the journal Nature, Talwar outfitted his rats with two probes to the brain that trigger sensations similar to what a rat would feel if touched at its right or left set of whiskers. A third probe touched the rats' so-called medial forebrain bundle, or MFB - a section of the brain that relays a feeling of happiness or reward, or as Talwar says, "the rat's Nirvana center."
Wires from the probes ran into a backpack that each rat carried, containing an antenna and remote-controlled stimulator. When activated, the MFB probe encouraged the rats to keep running, even if steep climbs or jumps or brightly lit areas lay ahead. The other wires directed the rats to turn right or left. The rats responded consistently to the signals after brief training in a maze. Then the rats followed the commands outside of the maze.
"We needed no physical obstacles to direct the rats," said Talwar. "We were producing all signals virtually - inside their brains."
The concept has not been well received by animal rights groups.
"This demeans what it is to be an animal," said Martin Stephens, vice president for animal research at the Humane Society of the United States. "The technology essentially de-animalizes animals and turns them into machines."
Rodent Legislation PendingNew regulations, adopted last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, might someday limit such experiments if they're shown to cause unnecessary harm or stress to laboratory rats and mice. But an amendment to the Farm Bill, now pending in Congress, would repeal those protections.
Sen. Jess Helms, R-S.C., inserted the amendment in February that would scuttle any protections for laboratory rodents or birds. Helms asserted the regulations would only lead to cumbersome paperwork.
"Isn't it far better for the mouse to be fed and watered in a clean laboratory than to end up as a tiny bulge being digested inside an enormous snake?" Helms argued on the Senate floor.
A recent survey by the National Science Foundation found that most Americans - 59 percent - were comfortable with using mice in laboratory experiments, but opinions shifted dramatically when the question was using dogs or chimpanzees.
John McArdle of the Alternatives Research & Development Foundation argues it should make no difference what kind of animal is subjected. He contends there should be protections against creating more remote-controlled rodents.
"How do you control what's done to these animals? You can't, because there aren't any legal consequences," he said.
This is hardly the first time researchers have electronically manipulated the brains of animals.
Tamed Bulls and Eel MachinesIn the 1960s, Yale physiologist Jose Delgado proved he could influence the mood and actions of animals through remote control. In one famous demonstration, Delgado stood, unarmed, in front of a charging bull. As the bull bore down on him, Delgado flicked a switch on a small radio transmitter that sent charges to electrodes implanted inside the bull's brain and the animal immediately braked to a halt and meekly walked away.
Delgado also experimented with monkeys and cats and generated horror when he suggested the technology could be used to limit obsessive and criminal behavior in human societies.
More recently, scientists at Northwestern University crafted a two-wheeled robot that operated partly on the electrical signals of a displaced lamprey's brain. Researchers at Duke University wired monkey brains to control robotic arms. And researchers at the University School of Medicine in Philadelphia demonstrated that signals from neuron groupings in rats brains can be used to control a physical device without the rats carrying out a physical action themselves.
Talwar is very aware that his remote-controlled rats pose ethical questions that will need to be addressed. Still, he points out, the rats in his experiment don't feel pain and even appear to feel pleasure, particularly when the wire to their MFB regions are activated.
Furthermore, he envisions the rats could someday provide unusually adept humanitarian assistance.
By outfitting the remote-controlled rats with global positioning satellite systems and possibly video cameras, the rodents could offer rescue workers with living, robotic guides to find victims buried under rubble. If equipped with sensors to detect explosives - or a device to read the animal's olfactory response - the rats might also help in finding bombs or land mines.
The rats could also travel up trees and through rough terrain with much more skill than fully automated robots.
"The advantage is the rat can serve as a robot and a biological sensor at the same time," said Talwar.
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