Stroke and Parkinson’s Disease patients may benefit from controversial experiments on rats that attempt to repair grey matter brain damage. Implanted neural microchips aim to replicate the brain function of damaged areas, through the current use of animal experimentation.
Scientists at Tel Aviv University have been conducting tests in order to ascertain whether damaged areas of the brain, the body’s most complex and fragile piece of equipment, could be replaced and ‘repaired’ via digital methods.
The rats involved in this experiment, due to the implementation of such chips, have been nicknamed ‘cyborgs’. Some campaigners consider the research ‘grotesque’, but those involved believe it could help the scientific and medical community make headway in both understanding and repairing the brain.
Professor Matti Mintz, at Tel Aviv University, explained to the BBC:
“Imagine there’s a small area in the brain that is malfunctioning, and imagine that we understand the architecture of this damaged area. So we try to replicate this part of the brain with electronics.”
The tests involve switching impaired brain tissue with a neural microchip that is subsequently wired to the brain, taking over functions that the grey matter previously performed before suffering damage. Potentially, this could mean that motor function and neurological damage caused by strokes or diseases such as Parkinson’s could be alleviated in the future.
Microchips could be used in order to replace specific brain functions, in the same manner that equipment such as pacemakers and many forms of transplant are already acceptable within the medical community.
The study involves researchers inserting electrode sets inside a rat’s brain and then connecting them to a microchip embedded just under the skin of the animal’s skull. The chip then receives and interprets information from the brainstem — in the same manner as the original, biological component — before sending the exchange back to the motor centres in the brainstem.
The current results have shown a measure of success. Motor function was recorded in rats that had the neural microchip implanted to take over the role of damaged brain tissue, whereas rats without the chip displayed no motor capabilities. The Professor explained:
“We constructed a simulation that works in a similar way to the original biological system - and when we see some recovery of the lost movement, it is clear that it is coming from our synthetic device and not from any other area of the brain.”
Naturally, animal rights groups are in uproar over the ‘grotesque’ experiments, labeling them “disgraceful” and “abhorrent”. Jan Creamer, CEO of the UK-based National Anti-Vivisection Society says:
“This type of research raises enormous ethical concerns, let alone the poor animals whose lives are wasted on dubious and ego-driven experiments.”
The scientists have future hopes of moving to human subjects after further testing, and current results in their eyes look promising.
Image credit: Jean-Eteinne Minh-Duy Poirrier/Flickr
Related at SmartPlanet: