What's Creepy, Crawly And A Champion Of Neuroscience?
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Have you ever wanted to control your own cyborg cockroach? Soon, you'll be able to direct the path of a cockroach with a smartphone and the swipe of your finger. Dr. Greg Gage is the co-founder of Backyard Brains. He and his colleagues have developed a device they call RoboRoach. It might make you squirm, but Gage says the device could inspire a new generation of neuroscientists.
DR. GREG GAGE: The sharpest kids amongst us are probably going into other fields right now. And so we're kind of in the Dark Ages when it comes to neuroscience. So getting kids interested in neuroscience early enough when they can still make their decisions on what they want to do in their careers is kind of important.
RATH: And a cyborg cockroach might be the inspiration.
GAGE: The neurons in the insects are very, very similar to the neurons inside the human brain. It's a beautiful way to just really understand what's happening inside your brain by looking at these little insects.
RATH: The idea was spawned by a device they developed called the SpikerBox capable of amplifying real living neurons. Insert a small wire into a cockroach's antennae, and this is what you hear...
(SOUNDBITE OF NEURONS)
RATH: It's the sound of actual neurons.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEURONS)
GAGE: Lining the inside of the cockroach are these neurons that are picking up touch or vibration sensing, chemical sensing around there, so they use it like a nose or like a large tongue, their antennas, and they use it to sort of navigate the world. And so when you put a small wire inside of there, you can actually pick up the information as it's being encoded and being sent to the brain.
RATH: With the RoboRoach device and smartphone app, you interact with the antennae to influence the insect's behavior.
GAGE: It's a small backpack, which we can then communicate through a mobile phone. And so we use Bluetooth. When you swipe your finger across the screen of the - of your mobile phone, it sends a message to the backpack, which then sends a small pulse of electricity into the left or right antenna.
RATH: The result: a cockroach that follows your directions.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RATH: Since Gage introduced the RoboRoach at a TEDx conference earlier this month, it has stirred up some ethical concerns. But Gage says his roaches are no different from working farm animals.
GAGE: Like the bridle of a horse when you can have these reins, you can kind of pull the horse left or right. You can do the same thing with a cockroach because it thinks it's being touched on the left and right side, and it will sort of turn in the counter-lateral direction.
RATH: And like an ornery horse, a RoboRoach can decide to stop listening.
GAGE: It only works for about five or 10 minutes, and the cockroach tends to ignore it. The brain adapts, is what it does, and so we're actually can see that in real time with these cockroaches.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RATH: With the RoboRoach, you can wield influence over a single insect. But what about swarms of these cyborg cockroaches? Dr. Edgar Lobaton is an assistant professor at North Carolina State University. He's in the simulation phase of his latest project: utilizing swarms of up to 1,000 cockroaches to assist in search-and-rescue operations.
DR. EDGAR LOBATON: We can use this collection of agents to do an exploration of the entire space to be able to localize potential people that may be trapped.
RATH: Wearing backpacks similar to the RoboRoach, their movements can composite a map of structures like a collapsed building. Lobaton says cockroaches are perfect for the job. They're natural explorers.
LOBATON: For this particular kind of insects, actually, they have gone through a lot of evolution. There's a lot of development in there to make them very flexible and to be able to accomplish things related to exploration and the search of food. So what we're trying to do is exploit, basically, this design from nature to be able to use it in our advantage.
RATH: So maybe you should think twice before stomping or spraying the next cockroach you encounter. Swarms of cockroaches could be deployed to save your life one day, or at least teach you or your kids a little bit about neuroscience.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.