Alper Bozkurt and Team Win $4.3M Grant

A multidisciplinary team led by researchers at the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis (WashU) has received a $4.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Strategies for Understanding Neural and Cognitive Systems (NCS) program. NC State ECE Distinguished Professor and ASSIST Center Co-Director Alper Bozkurt is part of the team, and Baranidharan Raman, professor of biomedical engineering at the McKelvey School of Engineering, is leading the study.

“At NC State, we have a long history of integrating electronics with the neural systems of insects to unlock the mysteries of these biological organisms and developing new engineering approaches by learning from these systems,” Bozkurt said. “We are very glad to be part of this new and exciting team led by Dr. Baranidharan Raman from Washington University in St Louis and members from NC State, University of Washington, and Georgia Institute of Technology.”

The research brings together the strengths of each institution to understand how the insects use olfactory cues to navigate toward an odor source, which could potentially be used for various applications, such as detecting gas left on in the kitchen or as the proverbial canary in the coal mine to test spaces for hazardous chemicals. In 2024, the team plans to launch the first-of-its-kind Center for Cyborg and Biorobotics Research (CyBoR) to formally conduct the research.

The team plans to study the neural response in the locusts’ brains by having the locusts follow a specific odor on a specially built treadmill while walking on a foam ball and while flying in a wind tunnel. By studying their movements and neural activity in the brain in response to these odors, the team can process the information using a custom microchip to develop a “cyborg,” or mobile robot or drone, that can mimic the locusts’ behaviors. They also aim to augment the locusts’ ability to detect certain odors over others.

Bozkurt added, “With this unique and interdisciplinary team of experts, we will study olfaction and odor-driven navigation by enabling novel insect-based brain-machine interfaces and robotic systems. We are also grateful to NSF for the funding mechanism under the BRAIN Initiative.”

While the team has already joined forces to create recording instruments and nanomaterials to manipulate neural and behavioral responses, they will continue to improve on those as they develop bio-hybrid and mobile robotic systems. Previously, the research team developed a miniature “backpack” containing sensors that recorded the locusts’ brain activity when exposed to the odors. However, the existing backpack is too heavy for the locusts to wear while flying, so the team will work to reduce its weight.