Worms. They’re weird, primitive creatures that seem to just squirm around senselessly. BUT this simplistic behavior is exactly what we are looking for in our endeavours to digitize a living brain. Now look at this. This..this looks like a robot being controlled by an ewok. But actually, this robot isn’t being controlled AT ALL. What you are looking at is a copy of the brain of a Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans. This is the digital brain of a worm ON a computer chip IN a lego robot. This little guy is a simulated brain navigating on its own. Well, navigating the best way a wormbot can.
The scientists put sensors on their robots “noses” and “tails”so if they meet a wall, they know to turn around. Just like the C.elegans. But, as simple as this robot seems to be, getting to this point took a long time. Researchers spent decades looking at each and every cell in the C.Elegans,and at how each cell works with the cells around it. Then other researchers built a program that could mimic that interaction.Each one of these boxes represents a neuron interacting with the environment.
They could do this, because scientists have a complete map of every single cell in the C.Elegans and their functions. It’s the worm’s CONNECTOME, and it holds around 1000 cells and all 302 neurons of this little worm. So, once you’ve digitized how every cell and neuron interact, you have the digital version of the C. Elegans brain! Sort of. By simulating a brain at a cellular level, the researchers can watch the larger aspects, like movement, emerge…naturally. Or, put another way, they turned it on and let the wormbot be a worm… bot. To do this they took the connectome, some algorithms, and a precise anatomical map and combined them. Then they threw it in a simulator — which is super complicated, and I don’t really understand how it all works — but the important thing is what happened once they flipped it on. The robot behaved like a living C.Elegans! Well, almost. The researchers are starting small. They want to get the neuron’s interacting with the “muscles” of the robot. It still doesn’t have independent instinct, it’s not going to start looking for food or anything yet.
Those behaviours are definitely on the agenda for our researchers, but they just want to get the digital organism moving first. Now, I know what you’re thinking, is this a huge step towards some crazy scientists digitizing and uploading human brains into robuts! AHH!! But, no. Not really. No. These scientists are mapping this worm’s brain and creating an accurate digital simulation because WE still don’t know a lot about how OUR brain works. This project’s success could completely change the way we map and understand our own brain. Plus, with this application we could possibly get rid of squishy living organisms in labs and could rely on computer simulations instead.
There’s nothing to fear… C.elegans are only 1mm long.It will take a while before we start digitizing your brains guys. For more science in your day, subscribe to Seeker and are you wondering how our brains power our thoughts in the first place? We explain it right here. Did you know that the C.elegans is the first animal and currently, ONLY animal with an entirely mapped connectome? Pretty cool. Thanks for watching..