August 18, 2008 The University of Reading has designed a robot that is controlled by 300,000 cultured rat neurons. “Gordon” can use its biological brain to navigate around a room, and scientists hope that repeated exposure to the same settings will provoke signs of recognition in the brain cells. The University of Reading team anticipates that the behavior of the rat neurons will provide insight into how brains store data, which could lead to a better understanding of disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, and strokes.

The rat neurons are housed in a small vat of nutrients and antibiotics, where they make connections and generate electrical signals. A multi-electrode array, equipped with approximately 60 electrodes, picks up the signals and transmits them to the robot via Bluetooth. Information about the robot’s surroundings is collected from an ultrasound sensor, and communicated to the neurons via the MEA. When the robot nears an obstacle, the MEA stimulates the neurons, causing them to react. Their reaction is transmitted back to the robot, moving it left or right. By applying different signals when the robot moves into a predefined location, it is hoped the neurons will begin to manifest signs of memory creation.

"This new research is tremendously exciting as firstly the biological brain controls its own moving robot body, and secondly it will enable us to investigate how the brain learns and memorises its experiences. This research will move our understanding forward of how brains work, and could have a profound effect on many areas of science and medicine," said Professor Kevin Warwick from the School of Systems Engineering.

"One of the fundamental questions that scientists are facing today is how we link the activity of individual neurons with the complex behaviours that we see in whole organisms. This project gives us a really unique opportunity to look at something which may exhibit complex behaviours, but still remain closely tied to the activity of individual neurons. Hopefully we can use that to go some of the way to answer some of these very fundamental questions," said Dr Ben Whalley from the School of Pharmacy.

Video footage of Gordon can be viewed here and an interview with Professor Kevin Warwick, School of Systems Engineering, and Dr Ben Whalley, School of Pharmacy can be found here.