Do remote controlled live rats (ratbots) really exist?

Rat Art (phboto by Infrogmation - CC-BY)

Rat Art (phboto by Infrogmation - CC-BY)

Since 2002 it has been possible to remotely guide rats under human control. John Chapin and Sanjiv Tawlar achieved this at the State University of New York.

The rat is fitted with a tiny backpack which contains a radio receiver. There are wires from the receiver into a part of the rat’s brain called the sensorimotor cortex.

The receiver can detect three signals. One signal is used to command the rat to turn left. This sends an impulse to the wire that makes the rat feel as if its left whiskers have been twitched. Another signal is used to command the rat to turn right. This makes the rat feel as if its right whiskers have been twitched. The third signal goes to the pleasure center in the rat’s brain, and is used to reward the rat for turning in the way that its masters want it to.

In this way, the rat can be rewarded for turning towards the direction that it thinks it has had its whiskers twitched, and it soon learns to comply. You can see the remotely-guided rat at this YouTube video.

Obviously this raises enormous ethical considerations, and many people will find the experiment and its implications disturbing. The researchers claim that the rat does have a choice (if it is prepared to forego its reward), and say that they hope to use the experiment to reveal information about the functioning of the brain.

Dr Talwar, one of the researchers involved, acknowledges that there might be ethical objections, saying that “the idea is sort of creepy. I do not have the answer to that.”

The possible military applications are quite frightening to contemplate, but there are also potential humanitarian applications such as searching for survivors amongst the rubble after an earthquake.

It’s not only rats that humans have remote-controlled. Chinese researchers claim to have forced pigeons to fly by remote control using electrodes implanted in their brains (the pigeon’s brain, not the researcher’s brain). And Cornell University researchers can make moths fly, while University of Michigan researchers can make beetles fly.

A similar thing can also be done the other way around. Cells from a rat’s brain can be transplanted into a robot.

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