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Robots assist psychology students in learning about the brain

February 11, 2019

KOKOMO, Ind. –  That’s not just a robot zipping around Amy Salmeto-Johnson’s classroom.

It’s a moving simulation of a human nervous system.

Students in Salmeto-Johnson’s behavioral neuroscience class at Indiana University Kokomo get a hands-on look at how the nervous system works by programming the Finch robots, which resemble white stingrays the size of a dinner plate.

“This activity provides students an opportunity to see how the nervous system operates, with simple firing or not commands,” she said. “They are creating the robots’ neural network, what actions it will perform, what stimuli, such as light or touch, it will respond to, and what it’s reaction will be to the stimuli.

“This helps them envision how complicated our nervous systems are,” she continued. “When you try to create one, you realize your brain does all of this without us having to put in much effort. Doing it for yourself, hands on, is even better than watching a video.”

Salmeto-Johnson, assistant professor of psychology,  received an IU Applied Learning Grant of $400 to purchase five robots, enough for students in her behavioral neuroscience class to be able to work in pairs to program them.

It’s not just a game — it’s an inside look at how the brain works.

Studying neuroscience helps psychology students better understand why people do the things they do, she said. When they understand how the brain works, they will better be able to help their future patients, by being able to identify what isn’t working the way it should, and how to address that problem.

“For example, the mental disorder of depression has been linked to a deficiency in the neurotransmitter serotonin,” she said. “Drugs, such a Prozac, work by enhancing the availability of serotonin in the brain of those suffering from depression.”

She pairs the Finch robots with a program called Cartoon Network, which focuses on building simple neural networks, or sets of connected neurons, which work together to generate behaviors with feedback from the environment.

The students work on laptop computers to program the robots, to perform specific actions, and then send them across the room, making turns, beeping, flashing lights, and even turning away or going towards a light source.

“I feel like using the robots has helped me better understand that there are a bunch of different things your neurons do,” said Brooke Troutman, from Lapel. “It’s helping me better understand how the brain works, on a level that I’m able to use what I’ve learned and apply it to something.”

It’s a simplified version, Salmeto-Johnson said, but enough to leave students amazed at what a human’s brain does without them having to think about it.

“They have 20 neurons on the screen, and there are millions or more in your brain, and they all have to coordinate with each other, and they do, flawlessly,” she said.

Taylor Ludlow said she will remember more of what she’s learned from using it to program a robot, rather than reading about it in a book or taking notes in class.

“This is more interesting than a lecture,” she said. “Using the robot, we can see in real life how it works. Being able to use our knowledge hands-on really helps you remember what you’ve learned. It’s more interesting than just memorizing.”

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 02/11/2019