Thursday, June 21, 2012

Neuron-controlled robots: reverse-cyborgs

Last post we discussed robotically controlled biology.  In this post we will talk about biologically controlled robots.
The Hybrot: a rat neuron controlled robot
In 2001, S. Potter published a paper on the "Animat". A set of cultured neurons on a multi-electrode array (MEA, purple circle in above image) interfaced with a simulated robot.  That is, not a physical moving around robot as pictured above, but a computer program simulating what a robot/animal could do. 

They made a virtual room for the animat to 'explore'. (If you can make a virtual environment for a worm, I suppose you can make one for a petri dish of cultured neurons) The signal from the cultured neurons determined where the animat went. If one group of neurons fired, the animat moved left, if another group fired it moved forward, and so forth. (The actual equations translating neuronal activity to animat movement were more complex than this, but you get the idea.) 

So here's the really cool thing: When the animat 'hit a wall', a set of neurons were stimulated with an electric pulse. They also gave the cultured neurons a sort of vestibular system, stimulating a different area depending on which direction the Animat was traveling.

Although this Animat study was using a simulated environment and a simulated robot, using cultured neurons to control an actual robot was only a matter of time. 

Neurons are somehow even cooler when they are combined with robots, no?

So what I think is really exciting about this reverse-cyborg system is that you can study the formation of neuronal networks in response to realistic experience. The feedback system used in the Animat could reveal how natural synaptic plasticity and other network-forming processes could organize a set of neurons. I am particularly interested in the effects of neuromodulation on these neurons.  If they form a certain kind of network under normal conditions, how would that change if they were bathed in dopamine during the 'experience' or serotonin, or whatever. (Pick your favorite neurotransmitter).

It is easy to think that this robot has a 'brain' but really the cultured neurons are not organized like the brain at all.  Watching a network form in a dish is fascinating and can yield information about how neural networks form in general, but don't assume that this will tell us how networks actually form in an actual brain. 

Robots sure are cute (source)
These methods can be used to discover really interesting things about neurons and networks, but other kinds of study (such as ones using real, intact brains) are need to find out what actually happens.

© TheCellularScale
Demarse TB, Wagenaar DA, Blau AW, & Potter SM (2001). The Neurally Controlled Animat: Biological Brains Acting with Simulated Bodies. Autonomous robots, 11 (3), 305-310 PMID: 18584059

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