JAN 15, 2018 7:06 AM PST

A Worm Brain in a Robot?

In many science fiction movies, knowledge is uploaded directly to the brains of robots, some of whom are eerily human. With computer code and algorithms, some entity, usually an evil genius, tries to build an army of these robotic superhumans.

The concept that the human brain can be taken over with technology, implants and, of course, a brilliant but profoundly flawed villain to lead them is not uncommon in the genre of dystopian fiction and movies. Could it ever actually happen though? Could a living brain be placed into something mechanical and then begin to work? Well…sort of.

Scientists working on the OpenWorm project are attempting to create the first digital organism. Headlines would have you believe that an actual worm brain was placed into a Lego robot. Not exactly. What the project did was to recreate the electrical signals and patterns of a worm, but not just any old garden worm. The Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans for short, is the rock star of neuroscience research. Its genome was the first multi-cellular organism that scientists were able to map. It has 302 neurons and was also the first organism to have a fully mapped connectome. The connectome is essentially the wiring diagram of the brain.

What the researchers at the OpenWorm Project were able to do is take that wiring diagram, and a whole lot of other information and turn it into the software. The project goal is to build a program that duplicates and performs the functions of the C. elegans. The team started with a cell by cell approach, figuring out what each neuron did and then building that into the software. What they did not do was program instructions into the software. The entire goal of the program was to see if the digitally created software "brain" of the worm could work in a robot as it functions in the living organism.

The team chose a simple robot to start, a Lego EV3 robot. After uploading all the data from the connectome, the researchers would stimulate sensors. In the C. elegans, when the nose touch sensor is activated, the worm will retreat. The same result happened with the software and the robot. When the software triggered a sensor, the robot behaved precisely as a worm does, backing up. When the smell sensor was activated, the robot advanced just as a worm does when it senses that food might be in nearby.

The robot was initially developed in 2014 and demonstrated, however, work continues on the project to get the technology to advance further. The original video of the robot can be seen here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWQnzylhgHc) Artificial intelligence is a large part of neuroscience research. The more that we learn about how brain cells fire and control the body, the better able we are to duplicate that process for those who have suffered brain injuries, illness or neurodegenerative decline. The OpenWorm project, including their code and other developments, are available as open source on various GitHub repositories. (While the bioethics concerning AI are complicated, finding a way to repair or replace brain functions that have been lost is crucial. The video below explains the details of the OpenWorm project and what applications it might have.

Sources: OpenWorm Project, I Programmer, Smithsonian 

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
You May Also Like
FEB 24, 2020
Cell & Molecular Biology
FEB 24, 2020
How Brain Cells Can Protect Muscles
Protein buildup is not only a problem for the brain, it can also impair muscles.
MAR 08, 2020
Neuroscience
MAR 08, 2020
Brain Scans Reveal There are Two Kinds of Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia is a chronic neurological disorder that affects around 3.5 million people in the US; three quarters of the ...
MAR 16, 2020
Cannabis Sciences
MAR 16, 2020
Cannabis Reduces ADHD Med Use in New Study
As the legalization of medical cannabis increases in the U.S. and around the globe, its effects on a variety of conditio ...
MAR 11, 2020
Neuroscience
MAR 11, 2020
Categories of Memory Work Together to Form Abstract Thought
Indiana University New research from the University of Trento shows how areas of the brain work to recall complex semant ...
APR 08, 2020
Neuroscience
APR 08, 2020
Study Catalogs Mouse Facial Expressions
It's easy to gauge a dog or cat's emotion by reading their facial expression, but the same has been historically ...
APR 26, 2020
Neuroscience
APR 26, 2020
Can you Get PTSD from the COVID-19 Pandemic?
Following a traumatic experience, some experience intense flashbacks, nightmares, irritability, anger and fear. Key symp ...
Loading Comments...