Newly published research showcases “ethorobotics”

Research described in the latest issue of the journal Alcohol highlights the little-known field of “ethorobotics,” or the study of the interaction between biologically inspired robots and live animals.

The interaction in this case was between groups of live zebrafish and a biomimetic robot fish designed to mimic certain zebrafish traits. In previous research, the zebrafish showed a preference for the robot; this latest study looked at whether alcohol would affect that preference.

Interestingly, the team from the Polytechnic Institute of New York University found that alcohol actually eliminated the preference — the fish spent more time apart from the robot when ethanol was introduced into the tank. More importantly for robotics, however, the experiment affirmed the value of robotic stimuli.

Maurizio Porfiri, one of the researchers behind the study, says the standardization provided by robotics is ideally suited to scientific research.

“One of the major advantages of robotics is that we can provide a fully controllable, consistent stimulus for the zebrafish,” Porfiri said in a release from the university. “The traditional stimulus in these experiments is another animal, but individual variations can affect the results. Robotic fish don’t feel fatigue. Their tail beat frequency never changes. Every time we introduce the stimulus, it’s identical, making the results much cleaner.”

In the future, the team noted that robotics may also help reduce the number of live animals used in preclinical research.

“What we know right now is that robots can be a uniquely repetitive stimulus for those investigating the effects of alcohol on behavior,” Porfiri said. “The innovation here is the method — we’ve taken one of the elements of experimentation that can vary, and standardized it.”

The team’s next experiment will use a robotic predator to monitor how alcohol influences fear in zebrafish … cue the music from “Jaws.”

[ photo courtesy of Polytechnic Institute of New York University ]