Back in 2002, researchers at the State University of New York made a splash of publicity — and lots of criticism from animal rights activists (Gary Francione complained at the time that “there’s got to be a level of discomfort in implanting these electrodes”) — after they created a remote-controlled rat. The researchers implanted electrodes in the brains of rats and then used a remote control computer setup to reward the animals for fulfilling tasks. In this way, they were able to train the rats to respond to a series of remote commands, essentially creating remote-controlled rats.
Neat trick, but aside from the basic science involved in helping to further map which brain regions are involved in specific behavioral changes, does this have any real world application?
DARPA, the Pentagon’s research unit, us currently funding a project to see if such rats could be used to locate people in buildings that have collapsed from earthquakes or other disasters.
Researchers Linda and Ray Hermer-Vazquez at the University of Florida in Gainesville have been training rats to identify the scent of human beings as well as for the explosives TNT and RDX. The trick then is to be able to interpret remotely when the rats have in fact discovered such scents. According to Linda Hermer-Vazquez,
There are two neural events that we believe are hallmarks of the ‘aha’ moment for the rat.
If they can reliably pick up on those neural events and have a system that allows the rat to be pinpointed when it discovers human or explosive scents, then rats could make ideal rescuers. Unlike other solutions for finding trapped people, such as remote controlled robots, the rats would be able to navigate within complex, unpredictable environments much better as well as detecting human and explosive scents in an environment that is full of competing smells, which artificial systems still have a great deal of difficulty with.
The Hermer-Vazquez’s told New Scientist that they hope to have a viable rat rescue system developed sometime in 2005.
Typically one of the fears after large earthquakes and other natural disasters is that rats will multiply and spread disease as a result of the breakdown of sanitation and other systems. How appropriate, the, that rats might also be put in service to find victims and save the lives of people trapped after such disasters.
Rats’ brain waves could find trapped people. Emily Singer, New Scientist, September 22, 2004.
“Robo-rat” controlled by brain electrodes. New Scientist, May 1, 2002.