The LA Times reports from SfN on recent developments from Prof. Charles Higgins’ lab at the University of Arizona. Higgins has established a portable electrophysiology setup for recording neural activity from a moth. The signals from the moth’s brain are then used to control a robotic platform that can rove about the floor, simulating biological motion. Specifically, the robot is designed to turn in the direction of the moth’s gaze:
In the experiment, researchers attached an electrode to a single neuron in the area of the moth’s brain responsible for keeping its vision steady during flight. The neuron transmitted electrical signals to an amplifier at the robot’s base, which was assembled from an inexpensive off-the-shelf kit.
Using a mathematical formula, a computer translated the signals into action, making the robot move.
To make the moth shift its gaze, researchers placed the robo-moth on a circular platform surrounded by a 14-inch-high revolving wall painted with vertical stripes. As the wall rotated clockwise, the moth’s eyes tracked the stripes. When the striped wall moved in the opposite direction, so did the moth’s eyes.
The longest transmission detected from the moth’s brain lasted 88 seconds, said coauthor Timothy Melano, a graduate student who worked on the project.
To this day, the visual processing networks found in even the simplest animals outperform anything developed by human hands. With a background in electrical engineering and neurobiology, Higgins hopes to change that by developing silicon analogs for the insect visual system. This video of a robotic blimp illustrates some early efforts in this direction.
Other attempts to control robots with insects use mechanical signals rather than electrical ones. Garnet Hertz basically seated a cockroach on top of a home-made trackball in order to record and reproduce its movements.
While Higgins and Hertz hope to control electronic systems with signals from an insect, other research groups hope to accomplish the exact opposite. For instance, Isao Shimoyama at the University of Tokyo can control the movements of a cockroach with electronic stimulators mounted on the insect’s back.
Even more exciting is the work of Yale’s Gero Miesenböck, who has developed a method for expressing photosensitive ion channels in neurons involved in the drosophila flight circuit. By exciting these neurons with light from a laser, his group is able to control the motion of the fly.
And that’s just a quick survey of the public research into ‘cyborg’ technology. Considering the vast implications of this technology for fields such as counterterrorism, I would not be surprised if the military has even more advanced toys in development.