Researchers Steer Cyborg Mice Through Maze with Brain Stimulation

Video shows a cyborg mouse ignoring sex and food as it obeys humans' navigation commands

3 min read

A mouse sniffs a small red cube.
Photo: Yoon-Jung Nam

How do you know if a cyborg mouse with mind-controlling hardware in its brain is really under human command as it navigates a maze? If it scurries right past a sexy lady mouse and an enticing pile of food to reach the end.

If you want to get straight to the point (like the mice), scroll down to the video below and start watching at 2:05. 

A team of Korean researchers created their ingenious cyborg mice by tapping into a brain circuit involved when an animal investigates a new object or gives chase to prey.

They outfitted each mouse with headgear that served a dual purpose: It held a fiber optic thread that penetrated the skull to stimulate that object-craving region of the brain (via a stimulation technique called optogenetics), and it also suspended an object in front of the mouse’s head. 

Illustration shows a mouse wearing headgear that suspends an object in front of its head and stimulates its brain.

Then the researchers, led by engineer Phill-Seung Lee and biologist Daesoo Kim from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), used a remote control to guide the animals’ movements. By sending a signal to the headgear, they could switch on the brain stimulator and cause a mouse to scamper straight ahead, or they could swing the suspended object left or right, thus steering the animal into left or right turns. The highly motivated mouse kept hurrying toward that desirable object, but found that it was always just out of reach. 

The researchers describe their system in the journal Nature Neuroscience. To test it out, they sent cyborg male mice through a maze with seven different components, including both physical challenges like a mesh ladder and the aforementioned distracters of a female mouse in heat and a dish of food.

The results were impressive. The video shows a mouse making a series of straight lines and decisive turns, exactly following the path charted by the researchers.   

The object-obsessed mouse is Lee’s second type of steerable critter. Last year his team created a cyborg turtle by mounting a gadget on the animal’s shell and guiding it with a clever combination of LED lights and tasty treats.  

Lee and Kim say there’s good reason to create machine-animal hybrids that are under human control: they combine the compliance of a robot with the natural smarts and endurance of an animal.  

While roboticists struggle to program machines that can move through uneven terrain and deal with changing circumstances, animals have built-in flexibility and adaptability. “Animals are naturally able to live and move through complex environments and, of course, do not need batteries,” Kim tells IEEE Spectrum in an email. 

Machine-animal hybrids combine the compliance of a robot with the natural smarts and endurance of an animal.

The researchers imagine deploying cyborg animals to map disaster zones and aid in search-and-rescue operations. They also suggest that their technology could give people more precise control over existing working animals such as rats that sniff out landmines and drug-detecting dogs. Finally, they imagine that the military might want remote-controlled birds that could wing out over enemy territory to conduct reconnaissance. 

The researchers note that the brain structures involved in object craving evolved early in the evolution of vertebrates—so this technology could likely be deployed in the brains of other mammals.

Would it work in humans? Kim says the answer to that alarming million-dollar question isn’t clear, because the human brain is quite different from the brains of other mammals.

And while they’re not advocating sticking fiber optics in human brains and putting people in mazes, the researchers do say that studying the object-craving brain circuit in humans could be useful. It may shed light on neuropsychiatric disorders in which that circuitry is malfunctioning, such as hoarding and kleptomania. 

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