Fishy solution to robot motion

Scientists at the Northwestern University Medical School, Chicago, are using the brain of a lamprey to guide a robot through their laboratory. Someday, they hope, the research will aid the development of robotic prostheses for humans.

Lamprey’s are able to tell up from down and keep their balance while swimming with a part of the nervous system called the vestibular system.

The vestibular system, essentially a feedback circuit, can detect drift and orders muscles to compensate accordingly.

This feedback circuit seemed simple enough to translate into robotic commands, said biomedical engineer Karen Fleming of Northwestern University Medical School.

Fleming and her colleagues dissected the brain and spinal cord out of a lamprey and connected it to Khepera, a lab robot equipped with light sensors and wheels.

The mobile robot acts as an artificial body, which delivers sensory information to the brain through its light sensors, and is controlled by command signals generated by the brain itself.

The researchers patched signals from these sensors into the lamprey’s brainstem and then directed nerve impulses from the spinal cord, which normally transmits signals from the brain to muscles, to the robot’s wheels.

The lamprey brain eventually learned to send signals that guided the robot toward a light source. The nervous-system-in-a-dish is also able to direct the robot to move in spiral or circle patterns, said Fleming.

According to Robert Scheidt, a bioengineer from the University in Milwaukee, connecting an electromechanical device to a nervous system provides a whole new avenue of approach for research on the nervous system and how it might be integrated with robotic systems.