Robot's brain could offer keys to Alzheimer's, Parkinson's

UK university researchers using robot to study how the brain learns and stores memories

University researchers in the UK are working to find out how the brain learns and stores memories by controlling a robot with a biological brain.

Scientists at the University of Reading Thursday announced that they have developed a robot which is controlled by a biological brain formed by cultured neurons that were allowed to grow, divide and connect in a laboratory. Researchers are hoping that by watching how the brain learns, and stores and accesses memories, they'll better understand diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, along with strokes and brain injuries.

"One of the fundamental questions that scientists are facing today is how we link the activity of individual neurons with the complex behaviors that we see in whole organisms," said Dr. Ben Whalley of the university's School of Pharmacy. "This project gives us a really unique opportunity to look at something which may exhibit complex behaviors, but still remain closely tied to the activity of individual neurons. Hopefully, we can use that to go some of the way to answer some of these very fundamental questions."

Connecting robots to living brains has been gaining a lot of attention in the past year.

Early last December, Charles Higgins, an associate professor at the University of Arizona, announced that he had built a robot that is guided by the brain and eyes of a moth. Higgins told Computerworld at the time that he straps a hawk moth to the robot and then puts electrodes in neurons that deal with sight in the moth's brain. The robot responds to what the moth is seeing -- when something approaches the moth, the robot moves out of the way.

With advancements like his own research, Higgins predicted that in 10 to 15 years we'll be using "hybrid" computers running a combination of technology and living organic tissue.

Then in January, scientists in the US and Japan successfully used a monkey's brain activity to control a humanoid robot -- over the Internet. This research may only be a few years away from helping paralyzed people walk again by enabling them to use their thoughts to control exoskeletons attached to their bodies, according to Miguel Nicolelis, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University and lead researcher on the project.

At the University of Reading, researchers are tackling injuries and diseases that affect the brain. To do that, they're using biological neurons that are placed into a dish where they can grow, divide and form connections. Then the neurons are put into a multi-electrode array that can pick up electrical signals generated by the cells. The electrical signals can drive the robot and move its wheels in different directions so it doesn't bump into obstacles.

According to a research document from the university, the only thing controlling the robot are the brain cells. There is no additional control from a human or a computer, it said

Researchers noted that they are trying to teach the robot how to behave in certain situations, like how to move around a particular object. If the behavior is repeated over and over, scientists are able to watch the neurons and the links between them strengthen.

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