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Biohybrids to the Rescue: (R)evolution of the Cyborg Cockroach

Robot cockroach
Photo Credit: P. T. Tran-Ngoc et al. (2013)

The concept has been around for over a decade: Robotic cockroaches toting Bluetooth-powered backpacks that can make them move where you need them to move. As creators of our own cyborg roach, we’ve also had a say in it. Which makes us all the happier to observe that the idea has caught on and is getting new shape!

Earlier this year, a group of scientists led by Hirotaka Sato from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University managed to fit a cockroach backpack with an infrared camera and a little processor. The reason? These devices can turn the bug into an efficient detector of living things. The mission? A roach so decked out can squiggle its way through rubble in disaster zones and discover survivors where dogs or even your average-sized robot would be likely to fail. Assemble a contingent of hundreds or even thousands of these swift and agile robotic roaches, and you could make an enormous difference in areas that would otherwise have been impossible to reach.

To be sure, much improvement and tweaking is still needed before squads of rescue bugs embark on their first heroic mission. The engineering journey has been arduous too. At first, Sato and his team were only able to remotely direct the cockroach left and right, just like we do with our RoboRoach. But then they developed a navigation algorithm that rendered the roach’s movement autonomous, as published in May this year in Advanced Intelligent Systems. With more testing and honing ahead, the whole rig will get dependable enough in 3-5 years from now, the team expect.

Another thing that they did better is coming up with a less invasive way to connect with the nervous system of the bug without operating on it. Instead of the wires that they (and we) used to implant into the antennae, they designed wearable sleeves that you can just slide onto the antennae and attach them with hydrogel. In other improvements, the rescue bug carries an acceleration electrode on its belly. This makes it possible to control its speed too, whereas our RoboRoach backpack could only steer its wearer left or right.

A Short History of the Cyborg Roach

For Sato, this was not a first venture into the world of biobots. His work “Cyborg beetles: The remote radio control of insect flight” pioneered the concept even in 2009.

We joined in the by launching our pilot of the RoboRoach the following year already. It’s a lo-fi yet powerful tool aligned with our mission to make neuroscience available to everyone. A whole host of other scientists have also been on it since, with more or less success.

Backyard Brains RoboRoach in action

Even though we primarily designed our RoboRoach for the college classroom, it’s always been open-ended like all of our kits. The backpack that we built isn’t just a receiver. Through the roach’s antennae, it sends a small pulse akin to the sensation the roach gets when it detects potential danger. This pulse triggers the flight response, making the roach instantaneously change its direction in order to flee. In effect, the technology taps into the insect’s natural escape mechanism that helps it stay safe in the big world of predators, from lizards to roach-averse humans. But it also hopes to employ this instinct by packing electrodes into the tiny yet sturdy body that can easily slip through cracks and tunnels to transmit loads of data back onto the surface.

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Unique ‘Pain Fingerprint’ – New Study Charts Brain’s Varied Responses to Pain

pain fingerprint study illustrated by backyard brains
Illustrated by Cristina Mezuk

“How bad does it hurt?” It’s not for nothing that doctors usually struggle to ascertain our level of pain. It depends not only on how bad we report it to be, but also on the amount of pain we think we feel.

But are there reasons behind it that would begin to decipher our (in)ability to cope with or even verbalize the dreaded sensation? According to a recent collaborative study led by Dr. Elia Valentini from the University of Essex, there’s more to this phenomenon than a mere lack of tools that would accurately quantify exactly how much pain there is in an “ouch.”

What Does Our Brain Do While We Hurt?

So far, science held a more or less persisting view that a surefire way to quantify our levels of pain – much like any other physical sensation or state – was to measure our brain’s electrical activity. When you’re sitting and idly scrolling on your phone, your brain waves will likely hover around 12 Hz. Start dozing off and these alpha waves will slide back in intensity to theta (4-8 Hz) or even delta (1-4 Hz) if you were to fall asleep.

Sleeping brain EEG

But if a very angry tweet kicks you out of your zen, your brain waves are likely to surge into the beta sphere, anywhere from 22 to 38 Hz. Finally, if you hop into the kitchen and stub your toe on the way, your brain activity will shoot through the roof and exhibit a very high level of oscillations, up to 80 Hz.

Or so the theory went!

The study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology paints a more nuanced picture. Different brains, it suggests, show remarkably varied responses to the same type and amount of pain. This leads the researchers to believe that each of us have our own and unique “pain fingerprint.” To gauge what our brain does against what it says it does, the researchers took two groups of willing subjects and put them through two datasets. The first group of willing participants was zapped with a laser and touched within a 2-week span, whereas the other only only got the laser stimulus. All the while, the participants’ response was measured on two fronts. Their EEG was recorded with a focus on the rapid gamma brain waves. Three seconds after the stimulus was applied, the participants were asked to verbally rate their feeling of pain from no pain (0) to maximum pain they were willing to tolerate (10).

The most intriguing finding? We may experience and describe a stimulus as painful in a certain way and to a certain extent, but the gamma waves will not necessarily play along. In other words, the waves that have been associated with pain for so long will actually vary significantly between individuals. But where they do show in an individual, they will be remarkably stable, consistent and reproducible.

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Beyond Silence: Plants Let Out Clicking Sounds When Thirsty or Hurt, Study Shows

Illustration of a plant letting out clicking sounds when thirsty or hurt
Illustrated by Cristina Mezuk

In a world of secrets, plants are speaking up. And science is all ears! As a recent study from the Cell journal shows, our leafy friends make popping or clicking sounds when under duress – such as when they are thirsty or injured.

But how exactly do plants make sounds? A team of scientists from Tel Aviv University led by Prof. Lilach Hadany decided to find out by placing tomato and tobacco plants in a soundproof box, as well as grapevine and wheat in a greenhouse. They used a device that can pick up very high-pitched sounds that are beyond the range of human hearing but seem to be just fine to field critters and other plants. To them, it may encode and transmit information about the plant’s condition and needs.

To be sure, a certain amount of vocalizing is normal in plants, as the scientists discovered. A happy plant that isn’t deprived of sustenance and isn’t experiencing any physical harm will make one such sound per hour on average. Cut it, and it will let out in between 15 and 25 sounds per hour. Dry it out, and the distress signals will bump up to 35 sounds per hour! Even more interestingly, not all of these sounds were created equal. Their quality varies depending on not only type but also the amount of stress. To sort them out and classify, the researchers resorted to machine learning models which, after being trained, managed to correctly “translate” the signals with up to 81% accuracy.

plants clicking sounds
Cactus plant with Microphones. Credit: Tel Aviv University

But what could be the purpose of this clickety fuss? Moths or mice, for example, can detect the hubbub within the 3-5-meter radius. In communicating with them, the plants are exhibiting a behavior that we humans can’t help but call altruistic. To a moth looking for a perfect green host to lay its larvae on, this signal may convey, for example, that a particular plant is in bad shape and not very likely to survive. But it’s not just rodents or insects that this botanical racket could be aiming at. Other plants may also be able to “hear” and interpret it as a distress call, a Morse code of sorts – and do what they can to adapt and survive dry spells in response.

However, that doesn’t mean that sound is the only communication channel in the plant kingdom. Earlier studies have shown that plants emit volatile organic compounds (that is, scent molecules) when they are thirsty or being munched on by an animal. Not to mention quirky responses to tactile stimuli as shown by the likes of Venus Flytrap or Mimosa Pudica that we at Backyard Brains have been researching. (And you can too!)

Social dynamics of plants and animals aside, what lesson is in it for us? And how can we put these findings to good use? This breakthrough, the researchers theorize, has a potential to revolutionize plant monitoring techniques, enabling farmers and gardeners to assess the well-being of their crops and intervene promptly if their plants are thirsty or besieged by pests. “We believe that humans can also utilize this information, given the right tools – such as sensors that tell growers when plants need watering. Apparently, an idyllic field of flowers can be a rather noisy place. It’s just that we can’t hear the sounds,” says prof. Hadany. But it’s not just about the plants’ trials and tribulations. Watering plants exactly where and when they need it can cut water waste by half while also increasing the yield.

In other words, when plants say they are thirsty or unwell in an era of precipitous climate change, the least we should do is – listen.