High-Tech Cage Could Allow Scientists to Study Rats Without Touching Them


When it comes to scientific research, creature comforts matter, even if the subjects are rodents. A 2016 review found that experiments on mice in warmer or colder temperatures can lead to significantly different results, impacting studies on cancer, obesity, and other diseases. And cold labs probably aren’t the only uncomfortable situations that are impacting basic research.

With this in mind, a team at Georgia Tech is engineering a better rat cage that can allow rodents to move more freely while attached to sensors and electronic devices.

“Anything that is abnormal or unnatural may bias the experiment, no matter what experiment in any field,” explains Maysam Ghovanloo, the creator of the EnerCage, a system designed to improve scientific data gathered from moving rats. “That includes grabbing the animal to attach or detach wires, change batteries or transferring it from one cage to another.”

The clear cage is wrapped in strips of copper foil that can power electronics and sensors that are implanted or attached to the rodents’ bodies, instead of loading the rodents with bulky batteries or attaching a bunch of wires. It’s also capable of sending researchers data about the rats’ behavior wirelessly, so that the rats’ behavior isn’t impacted by people handling them or hovering over them.

Resonating copper coils create a magnetic field within the cage, and another resonator is attached to the rat’s head. A Kinect motion-sensing camera installed above the cage takes 2D and 3D images in infrared and visible light of the rat’s location and posture, and there are four microphones to pick up any sounds. With algorithms that can identify the rats’ various postures and activities (sleeping, standing, sitting, grooming, eating, etc.), the system can monitor rat behavior without introducing a human element.

The research was presented at the International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society in August, and the EnerCage is currently being tested as part of research on deep brain stimulation and depression.

The EnerCage is still in the early phases, and the Georgia Tech team is currently working on developing a network of multiple cages to house and study several animals at the same time—since no studies use only one rat. They are also designing implants that would be able to deliver drugs to the animals inside the cage without human interference.

All images courtesy Georgia Tech University

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