Cockroach’s brain fires out walking commands

May 7th, 2010 - 3:32 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, May 7 (ANI): Researchers have, for the first time, found that cockroach’s brain fires out commands to walk and run-a feat that has paved way for better rescue robots.

A team led by Roy Ritzmann, Case Western Reserve University biology professor, has shown a direct link between neurons at the center of an insect brain and changes in behaviour.

They recorded neural activity in the central complex of walking cockroaches and found that in the same area of the brain where visual, chemical and tactile information from the world outside is processed, the firing of neurons is correlated to the insect’s stepping rate.

This means that cockroaches walk or run when their brains decide to do so.

“Robots were sent into the World Trade Center after 911. By the time the driver would see an obstacle, they were stuck,” said Ritzmann.

“We see in these animals an ability to adapt to difficult and changing terrain and conditions. What we’d like to see is a robotic brain that can make these kinds of decisions,” he continued.

He believes that the research could help lead to better robots to search collapsed mines and buildings, to pilot drones, and for space exploration, where signals from Earth to a far off planet takes minutes, hours or longer.

Thus, to make a robot that can turn, back up, climb over or burrow under and obstacle without the guidance of a far off rescue worker using computer controls, the best thing would be to mimic an insect’s comparatively simple brain.

However, to get these first recordings of neural activity, Research Assistant Allan Pollack spent more than a year perfecting techniques to perform brain surgery in an area the size of the head of a pin.

After delicately cutting through the brain sheath and exposing the central complex, he inserted a hair-thin braid of four wires that can monitor activity of groups of neurons or stimulate the groups with electricity.

With the braid implanted, cockroaches were tethered over the simplest version of a treadmill-a greased glass plate.

The researchers waited, sometimes for three hours or more, for a cockroach to begin walking, and to change speeds, all without prodding.

“We wanted to study the cockroach when it wants to move,” said Ritzmann.

He found that when he graphed the sums of the insects’ step rates and sums of the neural firing, they produce a similar pattern.

The steps come about 450 milliseconds after the neural firing.

“This is a breakthrough on a number of different levels. It was a real accomplishment to record the neural activity of walking. The interesting finding is the cockroach can control speed with the brain,” said Dr. Sasha Zill, a professor of anatomy and pathology at the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshal University.

Zill explained research shows animals from humans to - now, cockroaches - walk by sending a signal from the brain down to a part of the spinal cord or the equivalent, which generates a pattern of signals that direct the orderly contraction of muscles needed for each step.

The findings are published online in Current Biology. (ANI)

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