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RoboRoach cyborg kit: Cruel or educational?

The RoboRoach kit, due out this month, allows users to control the movements of a live cockroach through a smartphone application. But PETA says the kit is torture, while the start-up company behind the app emphasizes its hands-on educational value. 

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The RoboRoach undergoes iPod beta testing. Buyers must first anesthetize the cockroach before clipping its antennae and inserting electrodes in them.

Courtesy of Backyard Brains

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Do cockroaches have feelings, too?

It's the newest debate sparked by RoboRoach, a cockroach cyborg kit that's sparking backlash from animal-rights advocates.

The neural circuit, which must be surgically installed, allows users to control a cockroach's left and right movements through a smartphone app. The insect must first be anesthetized in ice water before users insert electrodes into the roach's clipped antennae. 

A beta version of RoboRoach has already been released to the public. But the newest version of the product, funded by more than $12,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, is expected to go on sale some time this month.

Backyard Brains, the Michigan-based start-up company behind the project, argues that the kit provides a hands-on, educational opportunity to teach students about neuroscience.

"Through and through, we're trying to make this an educational product," says Bill Reith, a product engineer and general maker at Backyard Brains. "If someone wanted to just use it as a toy, they're still going to have to learn about this stuff in order to use it."

But the product has stirred a backlash from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which filed complaints with Michigan authorities last week. PETA is arguing that the "surgery" required to set up the kit on the roach's back is an illegal practice of veterinary medicine.

"The procedure that they're having children follow really speaks for itself," says Jared Goodman, counsel to PETA. "It is mutilation, and all this cruel product teaches to children is that it's acceptable to cut open slowly and exert control over other beings."

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Reith says scientists are still debating whether insects feel pain, but the RoboRoach surgery still takes precautions.

"We assume that they do feel pain, and we treat them as if they do, and that's why we anesthetize them and take all the procedures we can within the surgery to make it as minimally damaging as possible," he says. 

But Goodman responds that dipping the roach in ice water is just a very mild anesthetic that only immobilizes them. "Researchers have said that even for invertebrates, it should never be used for a surgical or invasive procedure," he says.

PETA also says that research suggests cockroaches can not only feel pain, but also have complex memories.

"Cockroaches are intelligent animals who posses impressive learning and memory capacity," Goodman says. "They have sophisticated social lives and can feel pain."

The group also accuses Backyard Brains of shipping cockroaches without a proper permit. Although Reith says Backyard Brains contracts this out to a different company, Goodman argues that it's still illegal to offer to sell or ship them within Michigan, according to state law. 

Reith says the startup hopes to get more people interested in neuroscience for the future benefit of humans. In this sense, he says, the cost-benefit ratio is justified.

"The cost is a 26-gauge needle poking into the thorax where the flight muscles are and trimming off 10 to 15 mm of antennae," he says. "For us, it's a cost-benefit ratio that seems like a positive thing to go after."

Backyard Brains says the microstimulation of the kit, which anyone can pre-order online now for $99, is the same neurotechnology used for treating Parkinson's Disease. The company says microstimulation is also involved in cochlear implants, which are used for deafness. 

A cockroach determines its direction using the neurons in its antennae, which can sense when it's approaching a wall. Using the electrodes connected to the antennae, the "cockroach backpack" sends pulses to one antenna that stir up neurons and tricks the bug into thinking there's a wall. The roach responds by moving in the opposite direction.  

After a while, the roach's brain figures out the trick and the insect stops responding to the commands. 

Goodman says PETA expects to hear soon from the Michigan attorney general and the state's agriculture department about whether they'll take action.

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