Putting the “I” in innovative, scientists from the University of Illinois have produced a simple brain network computer model, based on that of a sea slug. They showed it how to get food giving it an appetite and the ability to experience reward, added a dash of something called homeostatic plasticity, and then exposed it to a very intoxicating drug. Then, as predicted, the slug became an addict.
This study, which has just been published in the journal, Scientific Reports, is a component of a demanding, long-term undertaking to generate a working model of the brain. The head researcher, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor emeritus of integrative and molecular physiology, Rhanor Gillette, notes that the research began with simple circuits, and slowly became more complex. He said that by watching how this brain makes sense of its environment, we expect to learn more about how real-world brains work. We also think our model will make a great educational tool.
They set the creature loose in a confined area where it would randomly encounter pellets of food, some of which were delicious, others noxious
This is the slug’s given name, which derives from Isaac Asimov, the renowned science fiction writer. He was one of the pioneering authors, who was interested in informing his readers about the ethics of robotics.
Although he was just a virtual predator, ASIMOV acted like a live one, and learned how to avoid the noxious prey items and gobble up the good ones -unless it was very hungry, in which case it would eat whatever crossed its path! All the different pellets has their own smell and characteristics, and these empowered the virtual slug to know whether to avoid or pursue it. Of note, as well as eating to become full and satisfied ASIMOV was also able to experience reward. Maximizing its own satiation levels and reward experiences were the creature’s two life goals.
Going For the Reward
Once the scientists ascertained that ASIMOV was able to distinguish between the bad and good food, they then added something extra to his menu; a nutritionally empty, but highly rewarding drug pellet. Naturally, this drug also had a unique odor. Once ASIMOV consumed it and experienced the intoxicating reward, it began to pursue the drug to the exclusion of all else.
Ekaterina Gribkova, the lead author, is credited with constructing the computer model, which is based on other research carried out by Marianne Catanho, the study’s co-author, now at the University of California. Gribkova noted that the drug also made ASIMOV feel satiated, satisfying both life goals. But these two “mental” states were temporary. Eating caused satiation, but that feeling of fullness waned over time. Furthermore, ASIMOV was designed to habituate to the drug. Just as with smoking regularly; the individual gets used to the impact, which decreases over time, and when they quit, they go into withdrawal.