Rat neurons used to control a flight simulator, and a monkey brain controls a robotic arm (UPDATE)

My nephew Matt sent me a link to this Wired article on rat neurons being used to control a flight simulator. In essence, they have plugged the feedback and the control systems into the neurons and have found that eventually the neurons learn how to “fly” the virtual plane.

Now, I have heard of using neural networks connected to wings or to legs and then letting them learn how to walk or fly. But I have never heard of using live brain material to achieve the same thing.

It brings to mind (no pun intended) articles I have read on teaching the body to “feel” fake limbs as well as on retraining sexual stimulation (teaching quadriplegics to attain orgasm through touch stimulation of their head for example rather than their genitalia), many of which point to the somewhat universal nature of neurons and their ability to remap to different inputs and outputs by simply retraining them purposefully.

The fascinating thing for me about this work is:

• the brain works without a heart (or so it appears unless I read the article incorrectly) which makes me ask, what is feeding it? Also, it’s interesting to me that all you need is the core material and then it just works – it does what it is supposed to do, which is receive inputs, establish communication channels, and drive outputs.

• it is a true bionic hybrid, similar to the guy who sent email via his thoughts recently.

Matt asked me what I thought of the ethics of this work. I don’t think there are any ethical problems with designing and building hybrid bionic creatures to understand the cognitive systems and signalling networks.

Although I do admit that the idea of fleshy brain material being inside this device did give me pause for a moment for some reason that I still can’t articulate.

UPDATE: This Wired article discusses research at Andrew Schwartz’s neurobiology lab at the University of Pittsburgh that allowed them to train a monkey to learn how to use a robotic arm simply by sending it brain signals, in essence, re-mapping some small subset of neurons to the inputs and outputs of this robotic arm. The monkey could then use the arm to feed itself. Once again, this seems to point to the brain as being quickly able to adapt to new limbs, new motor skills, and new sensations or at least the sensation of sensation.