Creepy RatCar could drive mobility research

Japanese scientists have figured out how to use brain implants to make a rat/car hybrid, and the research could have implications for those in wheelchairs.

The beginning of the cyborg apocalypse? University of Tokyo

The cyborg armies of the future just got one step closer to total domination. Probably by taking a break from building giant fighting robots, scientists at the University of Tokyo have created the RatCar, a wheeled contraption controlled by a rat's brain.

The researchers wanted to prove a simple idea right: that animals could use the parts of their brains that control limbs to control a vehicle. It looks like they can.

The goal of the research was to see if it might eventually be feasible for paralyzed people to control wheelchairs using brain implants. Other work has been done on brain-machine interfaces, or BMIs, in the past, usually using non-invasive methods to connect the brain and the target machines. The RatCar uses sensors embedded directly into the rat's motor cortex to help a computer control the vehicle.

But it's not an instant connection. The rats, which are lightly suspended in the device, were trained to drive the car by towing it around a test floor with the motors disengaged.

The rats were then fitted more tightly into the device so their feet barely touched the ground. The motors were engaged to assist in the walking. The scientists recorded how the rats' cortexes fired when moving a certain limb, then played the data back to the car's motors. The RatCar's computer was then programmed to use the rat brain data to drive.

In other words, the rat trained the car to follow its brain. There's still some question as to how much of the car's movement is due to the rat's actual intention and how much is the "locomotion estimation model" the computer uses to control the motion.

The researchers, headed up by Osamu Fukayama, hope further study will allow for more rat control and less computer control. They plan to increase the amount of electrodes in the motor cortex and figure out a way to filter unwanted brain noise.

According to a presentation on the research at the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society annual conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, six of the eight rats outfitted with a RatCar took to the devices well.

This means the research is headed in the right direction and there's a chance we could have brain-controlled wheelchairs and other devices sooner rather than later. And that's worth the creation of a few cyborg rodents.

(Source: IEEE Spectrum)

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