Dynamics of embodied dissociated cortical cultures for the control of hybrid biological robots.
Bakkum, Douglas James
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The thesis presents a new paradigm for studying the importance of interactions between an organism and its environment using a combination of biology and technology: embodying cultured cortical neurons via robotics. From this platform, explanations of the emergent neural network properties leading to cognition are sought through detailed electrical observation of neural activity. By growing the networks of neurons and glia over multi-electrode arrays (MEA), which can be used to both stimulate and record the activity of multiple neurons in parallel over months, a long-term real-time 2-way communication with the neural network becomes possible. A better understanding of the processes leading to biological cognition can, in turn, facilitate progress in understanding neural pathologies, designing neural prosthetics, and creating fundamentally different types of artificial cognition. Here, methods were first developed to reliably induce and detect neural plasticity using MEAs. This knowledge was then applied to construct sensory-motor mappings and training algorithms that produced adaptive goal-directed behavior. To paraphrase the results, most any stimulation could induce neural plasticity, while the inclusion of temporal and/or spatial information about neural activity was needed to identify plasticity. Interestingly, the plasticity of action potential propagation in axons was observed. This is a notion counter to the dominant theories of neural plasticity that focus on synaptic efficacies and is suggestive of a vast and novel computational mechanism for learning and memory in the brain. Adaptive goal-directed behavior was achieved by using patterned training stimuli, contingent on behavioral performance, to sculpt the network into behaviorally appropriate functional states: network plasticity was not only induced, but could be customized. Clinically, understanding the relationships between electrical stimulation, neural activity, and the functional expression of neural plasticity could assist neuro-rehabilitation and the design of neuroprosthetics. In a broader context, the networks were also embodied with a robotic drawing machine exhibited in galleries throughout the world. This provided a forum to educate the public and critically discuss neuroscience, robotics, neural interfaces, cybernetics, bio-art, and the ethics of biotechnology.