Sandro Mussa-Ivaldi, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University Medical Center, has created a robot with the brains of a fish. Not impressed? Consider how he did it: He wired a two-wheeled robot directly into a lamprey's brain stem.
To control the robot, Mussa-Ivaldi co-opted the part of the lamprey's brain that normally works to keep the fish's body balanced. Light receptors on the robot sense the surroundings; then a computer translates that information into electrical impulses, which are fed into the lamprey's neurons. They interpret the impulses as they would if they were trying to keep the fish swimming upright. The computer then translates the cells' signals back into electrical commands instructing the robot how to turn its wheels in response to a light. Neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University and his colleagues have achieved similar success with owl monkeys. A computer program reads electrical patterns in the monkeys' brains and uses them to move robotic arms— one right in the lab, another 600 miles away at MIT, connected via the Internet— exactly as the animals moved their real limbs.
A brain stem from a lamprey larva can control a simple robot.Photo by Sandro Mussa-Ivaldi
Such work could eventually lead to prosthetics that move naturally and provide tactile information. Nicolelis thinks it might be possible to train the human brain to control entirely novel robotic body parts if they are appropriately wired into our neurons. "You could directly control a robot on Mars and obtain feedback about the texture of the surface the robot is touching," he says.