Half cockroach, half machine, these peculiar insects were hijacked by researchers at Texas A&M University for science. Electrodes implanted in their tiny brains send electrical signals that stir the roaches left, right or makes them halt. Effectively, the researchers are controlling their bodies. This may sound despicable – it actually is in many ways – but the benefits to humanity are far reaching. The cyborgs would be our eyes and ears in places otherwise inaccessible, like disasters sites in the wake of earthquakes or other environmental calamities. Picking the cockroach brain might also help us learn more about how our own brain works. This in turn could spur the development of brain-computer interfaces or a new generation of prostheses that faithfully mimic real limbs.
Cockroach mind control isn’t exactly a new thing. Since the 1990s, scientists have been working with Frankenstein-esque roaches, planting electrodes in their antennae and sending electrical shocks to coerce the insects in moving in a certain direction. At Texas A&M, researchers planted the electrodes inside the ganglion itself – a cluster of neurons that control the movement of the roach’s legs. According to Professor Hong Liang, right now the cyborg roaches obey commands 60% of the time. In fact, it depends on how distracted the cockroach is. If there’s a lot of sensory input, it will tend not to obey commands. Liang says with confidence, however, that his team could reach near 100% compliance.
To turn roach into a cyborg, a candidate is first put to sleep with CO2. An acupuncture needle is then used to puncture the mini-brain and insert electrodes. Then, a sort of glue is applied to the backside to stick a chip the size of a quarter. The chip communicates with a remote control that the researchers use to control the roach, but also sends other sensory inputs depending on what kind of hardware the roach is carrying (cameras, motion etc.).
Is this unethical and inhumane, however? The roach brain is primitive compared to a human brain, and as such the way it suffers is fundamentally different from our idea of pain. When asked if it hurts the roach, Texas A&M PhD student Carlos Sanchez jokingly said ” I don’t think so. I haven’t heard any complaints from them.” On more serious note, Sanchez went on to say that the connections between their neurons and muscles are much simpler than hours, “so they probably don’t remember pain,” speaking for NPR. He is most likely right, but I can’t help noticing how this all sounds like a guess.
A while ago, an educational company called Backyard Brains came under a lot of fire. The reason: the company sold remote controlled cyborg cockroaches. For 99$, the company sends you a kit with instructions on how to convert your very own roach into a cyborg for educational purposes – actually, it’s intended for kids as young as ten years old and the project’s aim is to spark a neuroscience revolution. Animal rights activists were furious, but the founders stress that the project bears important educational benefits. Kids can learn how important the brain is, how it functions, and so on. Moreover, kids are encouraged to take care of their cyborg roaches. When no longer needed, the roaches are sent to a retirement tank the scientists call Shady Acres where disabled insects go on to live the rest of their days. “They do what they like to do: make babies, eat, and poop.”
One could argue, however, that these animals need not suffer. Each animal suffers in an unique way – sophisticated or not – but it still suffers. For instance, crabs and lobsters do feel pain when boiled alive (big surprise!). On the other hand, despite animal research is quite unfortunate, most often than not it’s essential to developing new treatments and even education. This is why cutting edge science which focused on building accurate live models in cells or even simulations is so important. When these become truly accurate, maybe as far as replicating human biological responses, then animals might finally be spared from human meddling.
Back to cockroaches, few people know how extraordinary these creatures really are. Everybody knows they can survive nuclear fallout, but lesser known is that roaches make democratic group decisions, are master ninjas and even have a personality. If you move past seeing them as gross, roaches can be damn interesting, cute even.