- Researchers at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, Brooklyn
N.Y., have developed technology that allows them to control a rat's actions
from up to 600 yards away with implants placed in its brain.
- Rats can be made to run, jump or climb, following instructions
they receive by radio from a laptop computer. Clacking keys on a computer
send these "ratbots" climbing trees, winding through mazes, or
searching through building rubble.
- The remote control rats look like school children, wearing
small backpacks that house microprocessor-based remote-controlled stimulators.
Wires connect the backpack to tiny probes that have been placed into areas
of the rat's brain that are responsible for reward and areas that process
signals from their whiskers. The rats are controlled by manipulating these
two areas of the brain.
- Remote-control rats are weird enough. But even stranger
is the possibility that the technology could eventually find its way into
- "Our discovery grew out of ongoing research into
the development of thought-controlled prosthetic devices for spinal chord
injury," said John K. Chapin, Ph.D., research partner of Sanjiv Talwar,
- The brain implants have already enabled rats to move
robotic arms by thought alone.
- With testing being done on primates, some worry that
this technology could eventually be used to control humans.
- "Could it be used, Big Brother-style, to control
human behavior, consumer spending, or even worker productivity?" asked
the Humane Society in a recent article.
- "What if some future implant, billed as a medical
miracle, was also secretly encoded to direct thought, getting a person
to think like Big Brother, or to work harder for managers at corporate
control, or to follow the orders of Mephistopheles?" asked The Boston
Globe in a recent editorial. "What if Madison Avenue got a piece of
the supposed beneficial chip to direct the consumer to buy the expensive
spread or the new cereal?"
- The research is being funded by the Defense Advanced
Research Projects agency, an experimental subdivision of the U.S. military.
- Right now, researchers hope this technology could assist
in "search and rescue" efforts by way of remote rat to find humans
in rubble, identify landmines and other critical uses, though outsiders
worry that these rats could be used for intelligence purposes, or even
to carry explosives into restricted areas.
- The rats would be much more adept at navigating over
rough terrain than robots, and could navigate through chaotic situations
- "The rat has rather sophisticated navigational skills,"
said Dr. Chapin, "It makes sense to make good use of the animal's
- "A search-and-rescue dog costs $60,000 dollars a
year to maintain, and you cannot use them in very tight spaces," said
Dr. Chapin, "nor could you use a dog to discover land mines, since
the weight of the animal would detonate the explosive. A rat, however,
being small and light, could sit on the mine without exploding it, making
it possible to identify its location and dispose of it safely."
- This kind of experimentation is not alone. Miguel Nicolelis
of Duke University is conducting collaborative studies with monkeys by
putting implants in their brains that allow them to control robotic arms.
Also, Yale physiologist Jose Delgado partially controlled a bull by way
of a brain implant. And Northwestern University researchers made a two-wheeled
robotthat was partially controlled by a lamprey eel brain.