New Technology Allows Scientists To Study Bats' Brains During Flight

Saturday, 14 April 2018 - 12:17PM
Technology
Neuroscience
Saturday, 14 April 2018 - 12:17PM
New Technology Allows Scientists To Study Bats' Brains During Flight
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Flickr/Shellac

Bats, while being closer to "rats with wings" than any other animal (simply by virtue of being a rare winged mammal), are complicated little creatures.

And new technology developed at John Hopkins University allows us to more clearly than ever peer into the mind of an animal in mid-flight. A team of scientists led by Cynthia Moss, a professor at John Hopkins who'd been researching this subject for the last 25 years, have constructed a tiny wireless device which can monitor a bat's brain activity as it flies around, giving valuable insight into the mental aspects of flying.

See the bat in action below, in a video made by the university:



The process is noninvasive and simply requires attaching a device the size of a small top to a bat's head. From there, the bat is trained to fly around obstacles in a dark room - which makes things difficult for the scientists, but essential for the bat - while the device transmits the bat's echolocation habits, where in the room it currently is, and all of its neural activity to a receiver in the top of the room.

The researchers first celebrated their success when they witnessed data of a neuron firing inside the bat's head while it was currently flying around them. They've made some more advanced discoveries using the technology since then, including that the firing neurons within the bat correspond to real objects in three-dimensional space, and that these object representations will sharpen as the bat focuses on the object it's currently flying near.

While this has a ton of broader implications down the line, as a means of more accurately recording animals' neural activity in real time to see how their minds work, getting to see what a bat thinks while maneuvering around in the air is fascinating enough.



Speaking to Digital Trends, Moss said the following:

Opening quote
"We are interested in how the external three-dimensional environment is represented in the brain and how these representations are used by the animal as it moves through space, while attending to the location of objects to guide its path. A vast majority of research on how the brain determines the location of an object has been conducted in restrained animals, using 2D stimuli and simplified behaviors. Our work is exciting because we use an animal performing a naturalistic real-world task."
Closing quote


At this stage, it's not like this will help humans fly. But it can help us build some more advanced robot bats than the ones we've built previously.

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