Brain Power

They did surgery on a locust's brain for cancer research

Cyborg locusts, developed by a team of scientists from Michigan State University, can detect cancerous cells through scent.


A new study conducted by scientists at Michigan State University (MSU) (which has yet to be peer-reviewed) points to a future where insects can be taught to identify diseases or illnesses in humans through their olfactory senses. Locusts, for example, may be able to help us identify cancer, early experiment results show.

Dr. Debajit Saha, a neural engineer at MSU, along with a handful of other biomedical engineers from the school, performed a sort of quasi-surgery on the brain of a living locust in order to take advantage of the insect’s powerful sense of smell, in order to see if it would be possible to detect cancerous cells within humans. The experiment was much more lucrative than when they did surgery on a grape.

As reported by the MIT Technology Review, the team surgically opened up the brain of said locust before implementing a set of electrodes within the creature’s brain. Lobes used to sense odors through the locust’s antennae were targeted in this process.

Cancer screening, maybe — In addition to modifying the locust’s brain, Saha and company then cultivated three different kinds of human oral cancer cells. A control group was also established with the creation of regular human mouth cells that were not cancerous. Finally, a device was created to transfer gas emitted from both of these cell groups to the antennae of the cyborg-locust.

The results were promising. The electrical activity patterns were so distinct that it was possible to discern whether the cells were cancerous or not solely based on the recording.

Not ready for wide use — There are a number of roadblocks to any possible adoption of this technology. There’s a basic question of patient comfort: Will people be fine with breathing onto what is basically an undead locust?

There are also ethical issues involved, and while the locusts in question do not feel pain, the locusts are discarded after completing a screening. “The insect is dead in terms of its body function,” Saha told the MIT Technology Review. “We are just keeping its brain alive.”

As of now, a single cancer screening requires between 6 and 10 locust brains, since 40 neurons are needed to receive a clear signal. Saha would like to eventually reduce that number to just one locust brain by expanding electrode capacity. Accordingly, the project will continue to be developed, with the aim to transport this electrode/antennae technology into a portable device.

In the paraphrased words of David Cronenberg: Long live the new medicine.