Understanding the Normal Aging Brain so that the Puzzle of Alzheimer’s can be solved - Phase 2

Project number: 
McDonald/Watt Projects
Academic year: 
This project is designed to assist in improving the current ability to collect high density cellular recordings from the brains of awake, freely behaving animals. As such, the project envisions the team to innovate, design, and build a select set of robotic and other mechanical, electronic control, sensing and telemetry solutions to advance the study. These new attributes will be utilized within the mechanical, electronic, and telemetry systems that currently exist – the Instantaneous Cue Rotation (ICR) arena.

Objectives for this project in rank order of desirability/feasibility:

1. Define and develop a new robotic system for food dispensing and tracking the experimental animal (rat). This will include the mechanical, electrical, control and communication capability of the robot per the requirements of the overall ICR system. As this is a follow-on project to one conducted the previous year, there is significant research available for this year’s team to be assisted in the design and build process. While this robot has specific requirements, there are preliminary design features that will be available to the team at the outset of the project; and, as such, it is envisioned that a completely working robot with all software and hardware could be available by the end of first semester. It is a key requirement that a complete operating manual and design feature set of drawings, software documentation, parts lists, etc. will also be completed during this time frame.

2. The second goal of this project - to be worked concurrently with item 1 (robot) above - is to design and implement a boom arm system connected to a commutator that will assist in guiding a “tether system” to act as a data communication signal path as the rat traverses the circular track as well as the open arena. The design will need to:
- Connect the boom arm to the base plate of the commutator
- Be lightweight and counterbalanced to prevent asymmetrical weight distribution on the commutator cylinder
- Allow the rat to move freely within the entirety of the behavior arena
- Ensure minimal disruptions to camera field of view (AND/OR install a second camera, which would require additional coding to support a dual camera system).
- Avoid excessive slack in the tether (which the rat may chew on, become distracted by, or become entangled with the tether) while still allowing the animal to be comfortably “plugged-in” on two different arenas (the circular track and the open-field).
- This “tether system” must meet the requirements of transmitting all data - signal integrity and bandwidth - as well as meeting all software protocols of the existing system such that it is transparent to the user.
Because the open-field component of the ICR creates a completely closed environment, the use of the tethered recording system creates the additional task of how to place the “plugged-in” (tethered) rat into the arena. If the rat were able to move freely as the platform is raised to close the arena there is too high a potential for injury.
3. To address this, the third project goal is to design and implement a “rat elevator” that will allow a tethered rat to be placed in the closed open-field arena (see example video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJukBNvXXxM). The design will need to:
- Lift the rat into the open-field without the potential for extremities being pinched between any components/surfaces.
- Fit underneath the current arena structure.
- Ensure perfect alignment underneath a cut-out in the open-field arena.
- Allow the tether to reach the rat while in the elevator (the tether boom will need to alleviate any excess slack as the rat is raised into the arena).
4. A final goal for this project is to install an updated display system for the live camera feed. The current system operates on an outdated CRT TV. This would require rewiring of system components and likely adjustments to the code.

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