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Rat receives functioning artificial cerebellum

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September 28, 2011

Scientists have successfully replaced a rat's cerebellum with a chip programmed to perform...

Scientists have successfully replaced a rat's cerebellum with a chip programmed to perform the same functions (Photo: Jean-Etienne Poirrier)

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Two years ago, the director of Switzerland's Blue Brain Project predicted that an artificial human brain would be possible within ten years. Since then, we have seen examples of artificial synapses and neural networks. In the latest step towards man-made brains, however, scientists from Israel's Tel Aviv University have restored brain function to a rat by replacing its disabled cerebellum with one that they created.

The cerebellum is located on the underside of the brain, beside the brain stem. It plays a large part in motor control, particularly as it applies to the coordination and timing of movements. Its fairly simple neuronal structure made it less challenging to replicate, as compared to other more complex regions of the brain.

The cerebellum (in red) in a human brain (Image: Life Sciences Database)

The team, led by Professor of Psychobiology Matti Mintz, started by analyzing the sensory input signals that came into a rat's biological cerebellum from its brain stem, and the response signals that it put out in return. They were then able to replicate this signal-processing/transmitting function on a chip, which could be mounted outside the rat's skull and wired into its brain.

They then anesthetized the rat, disabled its own cerebellum, and mounted the chip on its head. Next, they tried to teach the still-anesthetized rat a conditioned motor reflex - they subjected the rat's eye to a puff of air accompanied by an audible tone, causing it to blink, with the idea that the rat would learn to blink its eye even when the tone was produced with no accompanying puff. While it could not learn this response when the chip was at first not connected to its brain, it was able to do so once the chip was wired in.

The chip was facilitating the same sort of response that the cerebellum would ordinarily handle.

Now, Mintz and his Tel Aviv team hope to replicate larger areas of the cerebellum, which would allow conscious test animals to learn whole sequences of response movements. It should prove challenging, as artefacts caused by the movements themselves can degrade the signal quality, although better software and improved implantation techniques could make up for that degradation.

Ultimately, the descendants of such chips could be used to restore or at least improve brain functions in stroke victims, or other people with brain damage. Mintz's collaborator, Robert Prueckl of Austria's Guger Technologies, believes that even brain parts such as the hippocampus or visual cortex should have artificial counterparts within several decades.

Source: New Scientist

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
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2 Comments

Blurring the line between animal and machine feels like something terribly dangerous. Think about the implications of a computer virus in the brain, leading to the possibility of human (or rat) botnets, capable of coordinated action when commanded by some secret organization. Or think about software bugs, with crashing, rebooting, freezing -- all the now-familiar maladies of computer systems -- affecting animals and people.

If my family member comes home from the hospital with an implanted brain chip, is she still the same person? After the third or fourth electronic device has been wired in to replace other failing parts of her brain, is she even human?

Usually I am thrilled to watch the human future come into being around us. But brain chips to restore lost functionality are one innovation I hope I will not live to see.

On the other hand, I would love to have an input / output channel, so I can Google various interesting parts of my environment without anyone knowing I have an extra Google lobe that knows everything I will ever need to know.

ralph.dratman
30th September, 2011 @ 10:21 pm PDT

The integration between man and machine is thrilling to me. Perhaps because the concept is so scientifically rich, and because there is so much productive progress that can be had.

As far as the fear of a dystopia style future filled with antiestablishment rebels and antidisestablishment corporatists engaging in urban warfare in the style of hacking each others implants, it seems that perhaps there is currently not much justification for that fear. There are many kinds of integrated circuits (IC) out there, and a lot of them can't be hacked because they are hard wired to do one set of functions. A 555 timer IC can only do timing functions. A hacker will never be able to reprogram it. Even if one were to have a micro controller in ones brain (programmable IC), a hacker would have to have access to that chip to reprogram it. As far as I know, unless that chip has wireless access for some reason, or a USB port on the side of ones skull, the only way the hacker could access the micro controller would be to have physical access to the chip, and if the hacker has extracted the chip from someones brain, that person has bigger problems then having their brain chip hacked. Granted, the chip could be hacked at the manufacturing site before being implanted, but it seems it would be in the manufacturers best interests to not ship out brain chips filled with viruses.

If a family member comes home from the hospital with a brain chip to repair or augment some function, say, restoring the ability to speak, it seems to me that that family member is still human. That family member seems no less human then the person walking down the street with a personal digital assistant that stores all the calendar information of that persons life. Does the reality that someone has a device that stores all the information that their brain can't hold mean that the person isn't natural enough to be considered human any more? At the risk of grossly over generalizing the sophistication of a brain, I would propose that as long as the part of the brain being *replaced* is not a "memory center" or a "personality center," the person coming home from the hospital is very much still human, and still the same person. It seems we are largely defined by the memories we have, and we make the choices we make because of those memories. What if a family member came home with 90% of the brain being assisted by computer chips? Well if those parts of the brain are parts that have a specific basic function and are normally unchanging (in the same way that a 555 IC is specific and unchanging), then maybe it doesn't matter as long as the computer chip performs its job on a level analogous to neural networks. To be honest though, it does seems that at that point, something intangible and undefinable has been lost, and really, the person is just the equivalent to being kept alive by a heart/lung machine. But then again, I'm not a neurologist, so who knows.

I imagine so many possibilities with the brain chip concept. What if one could expand ones real time vocabulary, or download a new language and suddenly people of different nations would be communicatively connected in a way never conceived of before, or play video games in your head, or directly comprehend the emotional and tactual passion of your lover? What if one could share ones dreams in every capacity? What if one could be free to explore the boundaries of how much one could cognitively better ones self? Isn't part of what makes us human, the ability to use tools to allow us to do what we otherwise could never accomplish? There will always be malicious entities out there. Please don't let them dominate your future.

GeoMoon5
8th October, 2011 @ 12:37 am PDT
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