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The Science Behind Pickle Rick’s Cockroach Brain Manipulation

The Science Behind Pickle Rick’s Cockroach Brain Manipulation

We all know that feeling when we suddenly realize we’ve bitten off more than we can chew, but rarely is the solution killing a cockroach with our teeth and controlling its brain with our tongues. When you happen to have turned yourself into a pickle, though, as Rick Sanchez did on this week’s Rick and Morty, this may just be the best way out.

Rick and Morty‘s latest dues ex machina wasn’t just absurdist cartoon mayhem–it was based on real science. (The part about controlling cockroach bodies by poking their brains, I mean. Not the part where a grown man turns himself into a pickle.)

Following an unplanned trip into the sewer system, the appendage-less Pickle Rick entices a cockroach to approach him by biting his own cheek and spilling some sweet, sweet brine. That’s when Rick chomps down on the roach’s head until it dies, allowing him to pull back its exoskeleton and gain access to its brain, which he prodded with his tongue, causing the dead bug’s legs to move. In short, Rick and Morty is the best.

In 2015, Current Biology published a study entitled “Central-Complex Control of Movement in the Freely Walking Cockroach,” in which researchers from Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University poked around (not a scientific term) a cockroach’s brain looking for the neurons that control its speed and movement.

All the movements of a cockroach–walking, turning, or a combination of both–as well as how fast or slowly they go, are encoded in the central complex cells in its brain, which, when activated, make the limbs move. That connection is saved right in the neurons, like a pre-programmed radio station, hence Pickle Rick’s success in controlling his roach’s legs.

Rick is the smartest man in the infinite timelines, so it probably wasn’t much of a challenge for him to figure out just where to push. The researchers found exactly which neurons were responsible for which movements by attaching 27 wires into the part of the brain of a freely walking cockroach that registers sensory information. They then tracked and mapped where the neural activity took place, so that when they directly stimulated those neurons on constrained cockroaches, they were able to produce the same movements.

While controlling an army of cockroaches would be fun, the researchers said they were applying the lessons of their study to making robots and machines that mimic this motor process. Although, just like Rick who uses the same brain-pushing method on sewer rats to build a stronger pickle body, they believe this research could provide insight into how other animals move, including humans.

Even during arguably the dumbest Rick and Morty premise (and I mean that in the absolute best way possible), Rick managed to use real science to solve his problem and survive. We might not yet have the technology to turn ourselves into pickles, but thanks to science and Rick and Morty we know if we ever do we’ll be able to poke at an unsuspecting cockroach’s brain to gain access to some legs, and inevitably thwart a nefarious Eastern European government outpost.

What other answers to Rick’s problems would you like to know the real science behind? Tell us in the comments below.

Images: Adult Swim

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