Is this a neuroscience experiment or just a high-tech method of mistreating a living being?

RoboRoach cyborg
© Backyard Brains

In the pursuit of scientific discovery, it's generally considered more ethically sound to experiment with the so-called 'lower' orders of creatures instead of on humans, but a recent neuroscience project using cockroaches raises some good questions.

The project, called RoboRoach, uses a tiny electronic backpack attached to a living cockroach, which is capable of sending electrical signals to the insect's neurons in order to 'control' it. The electrical pulses are controlled via Bluetooth with a smartphone, which allows the user to 'steer' the roach by stimulating it with the pulses, leading the roach to believe there's a wall next to it and to turn in response to it.

According to the project's Kickstarter campaign, this is science, not a gimmicky toy:

This product is not a toy, but a tool to learn about how our brains work. Using the RoboRoach, you will be able to discover a number of interesting things about nature:

Neural control of Behaviour: First and foremost you will see in real-time how the brain respondes to sensory stimuli.

Learning and Memory: After a few minutes the cockroach will stop responding to the RoboRaoch microstimulation. Why? The brain learns and adapts. That is what brains are designed to do. You can measure the time to adaptation for various stimulation frequencies.

Adaptation and Habituation: After placing the cockroach back in its homecage, how long does it take for him to respond again? Does he adapt to the stimuli more quickly?

Stimuli Selection: What range of frequencies works for causing neurons to fire? With this tool, you will be able to select the range of stimulation to see what works best for your prep. Is it the same that is used by medical doctors stimulating human neurons? You will find out.

Effect of Randomness: For the first time ever... we will be adding a “random” mode to our stimulus patterns. We, as humans, can adapt easily to periodic noises (the hum a refrigerator can be ignored, for example). So perhaps the reason for adaptation is our stimulus is periodic. Now you can select random mode and see if the RoboRoach adapts as quickly.. or at all!

On the surface, this does indeed seem correct, as the possibility of discovering important neuroscience principles using the RoboRoach setup puts in firmly into the realm of science. However, putting the RoboRoach devices into the hands of the average citizen brings up some ethical questions, which could help to inform future projects like these.

For instance, what lessons may inadvertently be learned by children with this project, especially when conducted without a clear understanding of why such research may be important? What types of unintended behavior is enabled in younger children after seeing that parts of a creature can be cut off in the name of science? Who's to say that operating a cyborg insect is truly a scientific experiment or learning experience and not just a high-tech toy with a living component? Does empowering and supporting citizen science experiments like this often lead to scientific discovery, or does it merely replace a more sedate method of studying and learning about neuroscience and behavioral science?

According to ScienceMag,

"... the notion that the insects aren’t seriously harmed by having body parts cut off is “disingenuous,” says animal behavior scientist Jonathan Balcombe of the Humane Society University in Washington, D.C. “If it was discovered that a teacher was having students use magnifying glasses to burn ants and then look at their tissue, how would people react?" "

Bioethicist Gregory Kaebnick of the Hastings Center in Garrison, New York, says he finds the product “unpleasant,” and refers to it as “a way of playing with living things,” but the project's developers, Backyard Brains, have posted a fairly thorough rebuttal on the ethical use of invertebrates for educational purposes, including this statement:

"The use of animals for human benefit is a complex philosophical field, with some feeling we can do whatever we will with animals and others feeling that even having animals as pets is inhumane. While biology demonstrations “for fun” should obviously not be done, given that our demonstrations are to teach science/physiology in an interactive way, we believe the animal experiment is of benefit. We acknowledge this is a controversial claim.

At Backyard Brains we adhere to standards placed within the scientific community. More so, we also teach those standards to ensure that the people using our equipment have been educated in what is ethically expected of them when conducting live animal research. All of our scientific team has had professional training from our respective research universities in live animal research ethics."

For me, a science-curious writer (and father and homeschooler), I don't see that the benefits of putting projects like this into the hands of kids in the name of education outweigh any of the ethical issues, as I've seen first-hand that children are fully capable of picking up and retaining science principles and theory without needing to recreate the experiments themselves. I also see an issue with the 'objectification' and devaluing of life forms that are considered "lower" than humans, which seems to me to go hand in hand with our current cultural attitude of only seeing the natural world in terms of profit, and not with a sense of wonder and awe.

What's your take on the RoboRoach and the issues raised here? Would you purchase one of these kits?

Is this a neuroscience experiment or just a high-tech method of mistreating a living being?
A recent project that turns a cockroach into a remote-controlled cyborg could be seen as neuroscience research, or as just another example of abusing a creature for our own entertainment.

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