Researchers at TAU, Europe place robotic brain chip in rat

Scientists hope "robotic cerebellum" computer chip may one day help human paralysis victims, something that could be 10-15 years away.

October 5, 2011 02:11
2 minute read.
X-ray of a brain

Brain 311 T. (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)

A tiny computer chip that serves as a “robotic cerebellum” has been implanted into the skull of a brain-damaged rat, replacing one component of its brain and restoring its ability to move.

While the results of the multi-disciplinary project involving researchers from Tel Aviv University, and others from Italy, Austria and Spain, are very promising, it could take 10 to 15 years until such technology provides human amputees with robotic limbs.

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TAU neurobiologist Prof. Matti Mintz, a member of the team during the last eight years, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday that at present, rehabilitation of paralysis victims is based largely on behavioral manipulations directed at activation of brain self-repair processes.

However, he said, future advances are expected to include biological manipulations such as genetic manipulation and stem-cell-based therapy that promote recovery of neurons.

“Another feasible strategy is the replacement of defined neuronal microcircuits by synthetic analogs,” Mintz said.

Much work in recent decades has advanced the techniques of monitoring and stimulating localized brain sites using electric or magnetic currents. Deep brain stimulation reduces the symptoms of conditions ranging from Parkinsons disease to obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“The hope is that these two techniques can be interfaced by a real-time processor and used as a closed loop system with the brain,” added Mintz.

The rodent model was used by Mintz, TAU engineering experts Prof. Yosi Shacham- Diamand and Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron; Dr. Mira Marcus- Kalish of TAU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Technology; Dr. Christoph Guger of Austria; Prof. Paolo Del Giudice of Rome’s Instituto Superiore di Sanità; and Prof. Paul Verschure of Barcelona’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

They aimed at testing the feasibility of the closed-loop hybrid methodology for rehabilitation of brain functions by replacing a damaged brain microcircuit. The piece of cerebellum was used to test feasibility because it is responsible for coordinating movement.

When wired to the brain, the “robo-cerebellum” received, interpreted and transmitted sensory information from the brain stem, facilitating communication between the inputs and the outputs of the inactivated microcircuit.

To test this 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 this behavior only when its robotic cerebellum functioned.

“It’s 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,” said Mintz, who recently presented his research at the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence meeting in Cambridge, England.

“We are not the only ones in the world to consider the problem. There is a group in Los Angeles that is doing excellent work. They have ambitious plan to replace by a synthetic chip a large structure of the brain called the hippocampus. However, present technology does not unable embeding in a chip an anatomical replica of such large chunk of the brain and therefore they imitate they hippocampus by an approximating algorithm. We think our approach creating a synthetic anatomical replica of small microcircuit of the brain is currently more promising,” he said.

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