To locate disease in the human body, it would be great if a doctor could get inside and look around. Imaging technology helps, but the resolution of the image isn't always good enough for analysis. On top of that shortcoming, a lot of imaging technologies, like MRIs, involve using large, expensive machines the size of a small room.

That's where something called cyberplasm comes in. To learn more about this micro-robot, which fuses together microelectronics and biomimicry, Daniel Frankel of Newcastle University is leading a U.K.-based study with the support of a research team from the National Science Foundation in the United States.

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The idea is to have an electronic nervous system (which every robot ultimately has) with sight and smell sensors derived from animal cells. Cyberplasm's artificial muscles would be powered by glucose, just as real muscles are. In addition, the robot would respond to light and chemical stimuli the same way a real creature does.

To start, researchers are looking to model Cyberplasm off the sea lamprey, a jawless fish with a very simple nervous system, which makes it easier to simulate with electronics. The prototypes will be about a half inch long, with later versions being smaller –- even down to the nanometer scale.

Cyberplasm’s sensors will respond to stimuli and convert them into electronic signals, similar to how a real brain works.  The electronic ‘brain’ will then tell the artificial muscles how to move so the robot can swim.

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A micro-robot sensitive to its environment and capable of swimming around inside the body could check for tumors or blood clots, for instance, or find chemical signatures of a range of diseases. That data could be recorded and used to figure out what's wrong with a patient. Aside from creating a new way to diagnose disease, the project could offer insights into building artificial muscles that work in response to electrical signals.

via the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

Photo: The mouth of a lamprey from the Great Lakes. Credit: Great Lakes Image Collection / Wikimedia Commons.