Abigail Klein Leichman
October 25, 2011, Updated September 11, 2012

ABC News nicknamed it “RoboRat” – a rodent with a hybrid composition of a biological brain and a synthetic device.

Prof. Matti Mintz in his lab

Prof. Matti Mintz in his Tel Aviv University lab.

This cutting-edge experiment at Tel Aviv University involved wiring a computer chip with a manmade segment of cerebellum alongside the skull of a rodent with a disabled cerebellum. The device, remarkably, allowed the rat to return to normal activity.

Could the same kind of artificial intelligence lead to an unprecedented level of functioning for brain-damaged people who have lost the ability to move their limbs or perform other normal activities?

Prof. Matti Mintz of TAU’s Department of Psychology hopes that will one day be possible.

Knowing that the cerebellum is responsible for coordinating and timing all the body’s movements, Mintz and his team wanted to see if the synthetic cerebellum – a computer chip wired to the brain – could receive and interpret sensory information from the brainstem, analyze it like a biological cerebellum does, and transmit the information back to motor centers in the brainstem.

To test this robotic interface between body and brain, the researchers taught a lab rat to blink whenever it heard a particular sound. After disabling its cerebellum, they noted that the rat couldn’t perform this conditioned response. But once the robotic chip was hooked up to its brain, RoboRat was once again able to blink on cue, as conditioned.

Making up for lost neurons

As Mintz recently explained to other rejuvenation biotechnologists at Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) conference in Cambridge, England, the chip mimics a range of natural neuronal activity and connects to the inputs and outputs of the damaged brain circuit. Current biotechnologies such as prosthetic limbs only allow one-way communication with the brain.

The technologies used in Mintz’s experiments were developed through the collaborative efforts of other Tel Aviv University scientists and European partners. The cerebellum chip was built by Paolo del Giudice in Rome based on Mintz’s lab analysis of brainstem signals feeding into a natural cerebellum and the output it generated in response. This information was used to fashion a synthetic version on a chip implanted outside the skull and wired to the brain via electrodes developed by Yosi Shacham from TAU.

“It’s a proof of the concept that we can record information from the brain, analyze it in a way similar to the biological network and then return it to the brain,” said Mintz.

“Currently, rehabilitation is based largely on behavioral manipulations directed at activation of brain ‘self-repair’ processes,” he told his colleagues. “Future advances are expected to include biological manipulations such as genetic manipulation and stem cell-based therapy that promote neuronal recovery. Another feasible strategy is replacement of defined neuronal microcircuits by synthetic analogs.”

And that’s what RoboRat is all about.

Although much additional research is still to be done, it’s possible that the Israeli synthetic cerebellum could lead to electronic implants that replace damaged tissue in the human brain. This would be a significant advance for people whose brain has been damaged by a stroke, for example.

Robert Prueckl of Austria’s Guger Technologies is working with TAU researchers to model larger areas of the cerebellum that can learn a sequence of movements.

Mintz said it’s even possible that someday a cerebellum chip could be added to a normally functioning brain to speed up learning or enhance memory in the elderly.

The research was funded by Israel-based Converging Technologies by ISF and Complexity Science; and the European Union’s FP7 Program.

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