Scientists Create Cyborg Rats to Combat Brain Damage

Strokes and Parkinson's Disease can cause irreparable damage to your grey matter. However, one controversial experiment aims to replace the function of those damaged areas with neural microchips.

For the experiment, a microchip is implanted under the skin of the rat's skull with electrodes running a centimeter into the rodent's cerebellum. The chip receives an input signal from the brain stem, analyzes it, then forwards the information on to the brain's motor centers.

To test the chip's effectiveness, the team used a method similar to that which Pavlov employed with dogs. The rats were trained to associate a certain sound with a light puff of air on their eyes, which caused them to blink. Eventually, the rats blinked at the sound ahead of the puff of air. In rats with a damaged cerebellum, on the other hand, this motor function is lost completely and cannot be relearned by training another part of the brain to take over.

As Professor Matti Mintz, a member of the team at Tel Aviv University, explained to the BBC, "Imagine there's a small area in the brain that is malfunctioning, and imagine that we understand the architecture of this damaged area. So we try to replicate this part of the brain with electronics."

A neural chip that mimics the cerebellum's function has already shown some success. "We constructed a simulation that works in a similar way to the original biological system - and when we see some recovery of the lost movement, it is clear that it is coming from our synthetic device and not from any other area of the brain," said Professor Mintz.

Animal rights groups are, of course, up in arms over the live-animal testing. "This type of research raises enormous ethical concerns, let alone the poor animals whose lives are wasted on dubious and ego-driven experiments," says Jan Creamer, CEO of the UK-based National Anti-Vivisection Society. [BBC News]