The spinal cord is a miracle of nature, and it is a long way from being fully understood. At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, a team is building robots to explore the secrets of the spine.
Brushing teeth, making coffee, unlocking a door – our brain is the central processing unit for many physical movements. This might make you think that without the brain, nothing would happen at all. But that’s not quite true. When a doctor uses a small hammer to tap our knee, we experience a reflexive kick of the lower leg. And when we accidentally touch a hot stovetop, our hand will jerk back immediately. It’s not the brain that’s responsible for such movements, but another part of the central nervous system: the spinal cord. A headless chicken is, albeit somewhat morbid, proof of the fact that a living creature is able to move without a brain. The chicken flaps and runs about for several seconds even after its head has been severed from the body.
But how do these motor circuits in the spine work? What are the underlying control mechanisms for the movement of vertebrates? This is just one of the questions investigated by Auke Ijspeert’s team of 17 at the EPFL in Lausanne. The scientists chose a somewhat unusual approach for their research – they’re building robots. That also explains the name of their work place: Biorobotics Laboratory, or Biorob for short. “We use robots as a scientific tool to help us better understand mobility in living beings,” explains Auke Ijspeert.
It’s not so much about building a robot that looks spectacular or is able to work autonomously: “With our robots, we want to contribute to research in the neurosciences and biomechanics.” Evolutionary biology also benefits from the team’s work. “In many animals, motor control happens mostly in the spinal cord. I find that fascinating.”