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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Department A/Tech Note

Air Date: Week of

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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on a new technique to control rats from afar with possible future use in search and rescue missions.


CURWOOD: Coming up, why sugary cereal and other sweets and grains may cause children to become near-sighted. First, this Environmental Technology Note from Cynthia Graber:


GRABER: Scientists at the State University of New York in Brooklyn are developing a new tool to use in search and rescue operations and land mine detection: remote- controlled rats. While trying to build a prosthesis that can simulate the sense of touch, researchers discovered that when they applied electrical impulses to certain areas of a rat’s brain they could make the rat think its whiskers were being gently touched. Rats use their whiskers to help them navigate in and around tight places, especially in the dark. So the rats were suited up with a small backpack carrying a remote-controlled charging device and trained to respond to simulated whisker touches by turning either left or right.

Eventually, scientists were able to navigate the rodents around a room, even though the rats did the actual work themselves, figuring out how to climb over objects in their path and crawling into tight spots. One day, researchers hope this technology will allow the use of rats in search and rescue missions, especially in places too small even for dogs to access and places too dangerous for humans to go, like mine fields. As for whether this technology could one day be applied to people, the researches say that the complexity of the human brain would make mind control practically impossible. That’s this week’s Technology Note. I’m Cynthia Graber.


CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Mighty Flashlight, "Thick Light," LIE (Quarter Stick – 1999)]



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