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[] PI 02.05.02: RMA Cyborgs: Guided Rats,

Philadelphia Inquirer May 2, 2002

Pentagon Project: Guided Rats

By Peter Boylan, Inquirer Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - The Pentagon is developing live remote-controlled rats that 
eventually could be used to detect land mines and find people trapped in 
collapsed buildings.

The rats have electrical probes wired into their brains, and they can turn 
left or right, climb and navigate mazes in response to commands issued by a 
researcher using a laptop computer, according to a brief report in today's 
journal Nature.

"We can train and guide a rat to go over many terrains," said Dr. John K. 
Chapin, the experiment's principal researcher. "We'd like to train rats to 
go towards the smell of a person."

He envisions rats, equipped with electronic global positioning systems, 
that could penetrate tiny openings and find humans in collapsed buildings. 
They could locate land mines that soldiers would destroy.

The latest experiments, at the State University of New York's Downstate 
Medical Center in Brooklyn, evolved from research intended to aid paralyzed 

Chapin, a professor of physiology and pharmacology at the medical school, 
said he had been working in this field for about 20 years, using rats in 
experiments to learn lessons intended to help treat disease and injury. A 
recent paper looked at ways devices could be used to restore control of 
arms and legs for paralyzed people.

Out of his earlier work came experiments with rats, leading Chapin and 
researchers in his lab to test the remote-control guidance system in about 
30 of the rodents. Five learned to comply through sensory clues with 
researchers' orders well enough that Chapin sees a role for these animals 
in rescue operations and clearance of land mines, a major health hazard in 
other parts of the world.

Rats aren't heavy enough to trigger the mines. Instead, groups of them 
could be guided over fields where land mines were suspected, Chapin said. 
Explosives give off odors animals can detect.

Rats can cover as much as seven miles a day, he said.

"I would think of a squad of rats, 20 or 30 rats going out and canvassing 
for mines or the site of a fallen building for people who would be buried."

The rats wear microchips and wireless data links to the commander's 
computer on their backs. The researcher's signal, from up to 1,600 feet 
away - the length of five football fields - stimulates the part of the 
rat's brain that normally receives sensations from the animal's whiskers, 
which rats use to navigate. When it responds properly, the rat is rewarded 
with a signal that stimulates the pleasure center of its brain.

Chapin said the remote control works because the rat whose brain has been 
stimulated responds as if its whiskers had touched something.

To reward its response, the researcher sends a second signal to the area of 
the rat's brain that recognizes the consumption of food or water. The rat 
feels as if its thirst or hunger has been satisfied.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's funding 
agency for long-range, high-risk research, has sponsored Chapin's studies 
since 1999 under a humanitarian grant. The agency's media spokeswoman did 
not respond to calls seeking comment.

Some other researchers said the work was interesting but was an engineering 
feat, not an advance in animal neuroscience.

Randy Gallistel, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Rutgers 
University, said it was basically the same thing that scientists found they 
could do almost 50 years ago by stimulating the reward-sensing area of a 
rat's brain.

"Without the gee-whizery, without the remote-control and so on, that this 
kind of thing was possible has been obvious for decades," Gallistel said.

Howard Eichenbaum, a professor of psychology at Boston University, said the 
research, while not a major advance, was "clever" and held the promise of 
using animals as humans' "eyes" or as couriers to reach trapped victims.

Aside from the technological challenges, he said, there may be ethical 
concerns about turning animals into "intelligent robots" serving humans.

"It's one thing to see a rat running around like this, people don't get too 
emotional about that, but as soon as you get into dogs or work animals, 
people start getting real excited."

Mary Beth Sweetland, vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of 
Animals, deplored the experiments as well as the possible use of 
remote-controlled rats.

"Rats are not Tonka trucks with whiskers," Sweetland said. "This is just 
another way that people are showing how they really feel about rats."

The Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this article.

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