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Bat brain signals illuminate navigation in the dark

With new tech, researchers track nerve cell activity as bats dodge and weave

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12:30pm, September 20, 2017
brown bat

BAT BRAINS  A big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus) participates in experiments at Johns Hopkins University’s high-tech bat laboratory.

Ninad Kothari’s workplace looks like something out of a sci-fi film. The graduate student at Johns Hopkins University works in a darkened, red-lit room, where he trains bats to fly through obstacle courses. Shielding within the walls keeps radio and other human-made signals from interfering with transmissions from the tiny electrical signals he’s recording from the bats’ brains as the animals bob and weave. Layers of foam further insulate the cavelike lab against sound waves. An array of cameras and microphones complete the futuristic scene.

The high-tech setup has its homemade touches, too: In one obstacle course, bats dodge dangling Quaker oatmeal cylinders.

Kothari is part of a small cadre of neuroscientists who are getting the best sense yet of how bat brains work at a cellular level, thanks to modern technologies. Eavesdropping tools, which rely on tiny probes that track the activities of individual nerve cells, or neurons, are now miniaturized

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