Biological Modeling and Biomimetics: Some Thoughts from Study of the Rat Vibrissal (Whisker) System
Rats are nocturnal, burrowing animals that use their vibrissae (whiskers) to tactually explore the environment. Using active movements of its vibrissae, a rat can determine object size, shape, orientation, and texture. Our laboratory makes use of the rat vibrissal system in two parallel lines of research. First, we use the system as a model to study the neural basis for the sense of touch. Our aim in this line of research is to understand how animal nervous systems integrate sensory and motor signals to construct the “perception” of an object. Second, we use the rat vibrissal system as inspiration for designing novel sensors and algorithms that may be useful as engineering tools. This second line of research may not provide as much insight into the way that the real biological or nervous system works, but may have more practical applications. Sometimes we find ourselves surprised at the ways that our two lines of research inform each other. Other times we are surprised at the large differences that emerge between the two approaches. In this talk I will survey our laboratory’s recent progress in both lines of research and compare and contrast different types of biological modeling.