Rat Brain Cells Tell Robot Where to Go

It's cute, mechanical, moves on wheels — and has a rat's brain.

Researchers at the University of Reading in England have built a small robot that's controlled by a Petri dish full of rat neurons, which remotely steers the robot via Bluetooth wireless signals.

"If we can understand some of the basics of what is going on in our little model brain, it could have enormous medical spinoffs," Professor Kevin Warwick told Agence France-Presse.

To build the cyborg, Warwick, his colleague Ben Whalley and their team dissolved a fetal rat's brain.

They then put the free-floating brain cells, or neurons, into an electrode-ringed Petri dish, where the cells quickly reassociated with each other and began randomly firing electrical signals.

Electrical pulses sent through the ring of electrodes calmed down the neurons, and after a while the cells began to "learn" patterns among the external pulses.

Now the brain-in-a-dish recognizes the signals created by the robot's ultrasound "eyes" as it approaches a wall — and quickly sends back signals that force the robot to change direction.

Warwick and Whalley hope their findings will shed light on neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, as well as contribute to ongoing development of neural interfaces to aid paralyzed humans move and communicate.

• Click here to watch a video of the rat-robot in action.

• Click here for a feature in New Scientist about the rat-robot.

• Click here for an AFP wire story.

• Click here to read the University of Reading press release.