The Neurally Controlled Animat: Biological Brains Acting with Simulated Bodies
The brain is perhaps the most advanced and robust computation system known. We are creating a method to study how information is processed and encoded in living cultured neuronal networks by interfacing them to a computer-generated animal, the Neurally-Controlled Animat, within a virtual world. Cortical neurons from rats are dissociated and cultured on a surface containing a grid of electrodes (multi-electrode arrays, or MEAs) capable of both recording and stimulating neural activity. Distributed patterns of neural activity are used to control the behavior of the Animat in a simulated environment. The computer acts as its sensory system providing electrical feedback to the network about the Animat's movement within its environment. Changes in the Animat's behavior due to interaction with its surroundings are studied in concert with the biological processes (e.g., neural plasticity) that produced those changes, to understand how information is processed and encoded within a living neural network. Thus, we have created a hybrid real-time processing engine and control system that consists of living, electronic, and simulated components. Eventually this approach may be applied to controlling robotic devices, or lead to better real-time silicon-based information processing and control algorithms that are fault tolerant and can repair themselves.