February 19, 2004
Smart Vivarium Technology To Automate Animal Studies

Advances in electronics and software are being harnessed at UC San Diego to automate the monitoring and analysis of lab animals used in research.

Computer scientists and animal care experts at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) have come up with a new way to automate the monitoring of mice and other animals in laboratory research. Combining cameras and distributed, non-invasive sensors with elements of computer vision, information technology and artificial intelligence, the Smart Vivarium project aims to enhance the quality of animal research, while at the same time enabling better health care for animals.

The pilot project is led by Serge Belongie, an assistant professor in Computer Science and Engineering at UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering. It is funded entirely by the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology [Cal-(IT)²], a joint venture of UCSD and UC Irvine. “Today a lot of medical research relies on drug administration and careful monitoring of large numbers of live mice and other animals, usually in cages located in a vivarium,” said Belongie. “But it is an entirely manual process, so there are limitations on how often observations can be made, and how thoroughly those observations can be analyzed.”

This work at UCSD is still at a fairly early stage and the project is really of a rather open-ended nature. For decades to come advances in image processing algorithms, artificial intelligence algorithms, and other areas of computer science will combine with continuing advances in sensors and in computer speed and storage capacity to enable more useful information to be automatically derived from computerized automated monitoring systems. This project is definitely a step in a direction that promises to drastically lower costs and speed the rate of advancement of behavioral and biomedical research.

The ability to collect more data in a single experiment will reduce the number of experiments that need to be done. This will both speed research and lower costs.

UCSD is a major biological sciences research center, and animal-care specialists believe the technology under development could dramatically improve the care of research animals. “The Smart Vivarium will make better use of fewer lab animals and lead to more efficient animal health care,” said Phil Richter, Director of UCSD’s Animal Care Program, who is working with Belongie on the project. “Sick animals would be detected and diagnosed sooner, allowing for earlier treatments.” The technology would also help to reduce the number of animals needed in scientific investigations. “In medical research, experiments are sometimes repeated due to observational and analytical limitations,” said Belongie. “By recording all the data the first time, scientists could go back and look for different patterns in the data without using more mice to perform the new experiment.”

For many of the same reasons, the underlying technology could be useful for the early diagnosis and monitoring of sick animals in zoos, veterinary offices and agriculture. (“Early detection of lameness in livestock,” noted Belongie, “could help stop the transmission of disease.”) The computer scientist also intends to seek collaboration with the San Diego Zoo and other local institutions for practical field deployment of the monitoring systems as part of an upcoming study.

The total amount of data collected per experiment will go up by orders of magnitude with this system.

As for improvements in medical research from the continuous monitoring of lab animals, Belongie expects at least an improvement of two orders of magnitude in the automated collection and processing of monitoring data. “Continuous monitoring and mining of animal physiological and behavioral data will allow medical researchers to detect subtle patterns expressible only over lengthy longitudinal studies,” noted Belongie. “By providing a never-before-available, vivarium-wide collection of continuous animal behavior measurements, this technology could yield major breakthroughs in drug design and medical research, not to mention veterinary science, experimental psychology and animal care.”

Advances in computer hardware and software technologies serve as major enablers for advances in biomedical research, environmental reearch, and other aspects of biological and behavioral research. Continued rapid advances in computing technologies in coming decades will improve the productivity of researchers by orders of magnitude above current levels of productivity. Therefore the rate of advance of all the biological sciences will accelerate dramatically.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 February 19 01:26 PM  Biotech Advance Rates


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