Researchers at SUNY Downstate Medical Center have developed a means of remotely guiding rats, promising the development of "search-and rescue" rodents that could be used to find human beings in rubble, identify the location of land mines, and other critical uses.
"Our discovery grew out of ongoing research into the development of thought-controlled prosthetic devices for spinal chord injury," said John K. Chapin, Ph.D., in whose laboratory the work took place. "That research led us to enable rats to move a robotic arm with thought alone. It was a natural step to stimulate the rats to move through space." Dr. Chapin is professor of physiology and pharmacology at SUNY Downstate.
Dr. Chapin, research associate Sanjiv Talwar, M.D., Ph.D., and others report in the current issue of Nature that they implanted probes into areas of the rat brain responsible for reward and those which process signals from their whiskers. Wires from the probes ran into a backpack carried by each rat containing a microprocessor-based remote-controlled stimulator. They trained the rats to interpret the remote instructions in a maze. By stimulating the whisker centers they steered the rats, and by stimulating the brain's reward center they reinforced the desired behavior.
After the rats are trained in the laboratory, they can be made to turn, run, jump and climb through an unconfined three-dimensional environment following instructions issued from a laptop computer. The rats have been directed to climb trees and fences and to explore building rubble.
"A search-and-rescue dog costs $60,000 a year to maintain, and you cannot use them in very tight spaces," Dr. Chapin explains. "Nor could you use a dog to discover land mines, since the weight of the animal would detonate the explosive. A rat, however, being small and light, could sit on the mine without exploding it, making it possible to identify its location and dispose of it safely."
"In addition, rats are more mobile than mechanical robots, which often are stymied by obstacles such as fences, rocks and debris," says Dr. Chapin. "While robots would be useful in environments where a living thing could not survive, such as where there are fires or poisonous gases, the rat has rather sophisticated navigational skills developed over 200 million years of evolution. It makes sense to make good use of the animal's abilities."
Dr. Chapin's research is funded by the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). SUNY Downstate Medical Center is the only academic medical center serving Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, comprising a College of Medicine, Colleges of Nursing and Health Related Professions, a School of Graduate Studies, and the 376-bed University Hospital of Brooklyn. In 1998, one of its researchers, Dr. Robert F. Furchgott, won the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Editor's Note: The original news release can be found here
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