We've all read about efforts to provide amputees with robotic limbs and we know that deep brain stimulation can relieve a range of Parkinson and OCD symptoms - a Tel Aviv University researcher has combined those ideas and gone a step farther and successfully implanted a robotic cerebellum into the skull of a rodent with brain damage, restoring its capacity for movement.
The cerebellum is responsible for co-ordinating movement, explains Prof. Matti Mintz of TAU's Department of Psychology. When wired to the brain, his "robo-cerebellum" receives, interprets, and transmits sensory information from the brain stem, facilitating communication between the brain and the body.
To test the robotic interface between body and brain, the researchers taught a brain-damaged rat to blink whenever they sounded a particular tone. The rat could perform the behavior when its robotic cerebellum was functional yet when the researchers disabled the rat’s artifical cerebellum, however, the rat could no longer coordinate this behavior. The rat went back to blinking at the sound of the beep when it was hooked up again.
According to the researcher, the chip is designed to mimic natural neuronal activity. The pontine nucleus (PN) conveys telesensory signals and the inferior olive (IO) conveys somatosensory signals. "It's a proof of the concept that we can record information from the brain, analyze it in a way similar to the biological network, and then return it to the brain," says Prof. Mintz, who recently presented his research at the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence meeting in Cambridge, UK.
In the future, this robo-cerebellum could lead to electronic implants that replace damaged tissues in the human brain.
Robotic limbs wired to the brain, and parts of the brain replaced with electronic equivalents, are attainable, but the days of a full-on human cyborg brain implant are far off, the researchers say. So no world of William Gibson just yet.
SENS Foundation: biomimetic model aimed at recovering learning in a brain damaged animal: Converging neuroscience with technology by M. Mintz