Faulty parts of living brains have been replaced by electronic chips, in an astonishing and controversial scientific breakthrough.
It’s a move that has been anticipated many times in science fiction, with creatures such as The Terminator, a ‘cyborg’ hybrid of flesh and machinery.
But now, researchers at Tel Aviv University have successfully created circuits that can replace motor functions – such as blinking – and implanted them into brains.
They hope the technology could in the future help people suffering from brain malfunctions such as Parkinson’s disease – by replacing damaged or malfunctioning tissue with chips that perform the same function.
‘Imagine there’s a small area in the brain that is malfunctioning, and imagine that we understand the architecture of this damaged area,’ said Professor Matti Mintz, a psychobiologist, speaking to the BBC.
‘So we try to replicate this part of the brain with electronics.’
Mintz has already successfully implanted a robotic cerebellum into the skull of a rodent with brain damage, restoring its capacity for movement.
However, anti-vivisection campaigners have described the experiments as ‘grotesque’.
‘Imagine there’s a small area in the brain that is malfunctioning, and imagine that we understand how it works. We try to replicate this part of the brain with electronics,’ said Professor Mintz
The cerebellum is responsible for co-ordinating movement, says Mintz.
When wired to the brain, his ‘robo-cerebellum’ receives, interprets, and transmits sensory information from the brain stem, facilitating communication between the brain and the body.
To test this robotic interface between body and brain, the researchers taught a brain-damaged rat to blink whenever they sounded a particular tone.
The rat could only perform the behavior when its robotic cerebellum was functional.
According to the researcher, the chip is designed to mimic natural neuronal activity.
‘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,’ says Prof. Mintz, who recently presented his research at the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence meeting in Cambridge, UK.
In the future, this robo-cerebellum could lead to electronic implants that replace damaged tissues in the human brain.
‘This type of research raises enormous ethical concerns, let alone the poor animals whose lives are wasted on dubious and ego-driven experiments,’ Jan Creamer, CEO of the National Anti-Vivisection Society, in an interview with the BBC.