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Scientists Unveil 'Roborats' - 2002-05-03

Scientists say they have outfitted rats with remote controls devices, with an eye toward using them in rescue operations, such as that of the World Trade Center disaster.

Researchers writing in the journal "Nature" describe how rats were made to easily navigate a maze. Scientists controlled the animals using a laptop computer up to 500 meters away.

The investigators implanted three tiny wires into the rats' brains. Two of the wires were attached to the sensing region of the rats' right and left whiskers. To make the animal go to the left, for example, a pulse of electrical current stimulated a region of the brain that made the rat feel as if its left whiskers had been touched.

Researchers rewarded correct moves with stimulation of the animals' pleasure center by the third wire, giving them a pulse of euphoria.

The rats wear tiny packs strapped to their back with a small antenna to receive radio signals from a laptop.

One of the authors, Sanjiv Talwar of State University of New York, said the research concept is not new. "You know you give an animal a signal, he will do something and you reward him," he said. "But we do it with remote control. And it was a way to find out how well [they can] interpret and distinguish signals directly into the brain."

Professor Talwar believes that because rats are small and flexible and can get into tight places that mechanical robots cannot, they would be ideal for search and rescue operations such as the one required for the World Trade Center.

But Robin Murphy of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue, who helped coordinate search and rescue at the World Trade Center after the September 11 terrorist attack, is not so sure that the so-called "roborats" could overcome their natural instincts to be of much use. "My biggest concern is a usar [urban search and rescue] site is usually covered with blood and body fluids and bits of remains, and things rats usually treat as food," he said. "And I think it is usually going to be essentially essential to see whether the stimulus conditioning they do can overcome the powerful stimulus that is going to be afforded by the remains."

Investigators say their work with "roborats" is the outgrowth of research to see whether they can help people who are paralyzed regain sensation and movement with brain implants.