CRACK IT award to develop tiny wireless recorders

Over the next three years, experts in low power electronics for monitoring human patients are going to use their skills to benefit the mice used in laboratory tests of psychiatric diseases.  Their goal is to create wireless equipment for recording brain activity that will weigh less than a 5p coin.  This will make life less stressful for the mice and pave the way for better understanding and treatment of schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease. 

The team from Imperial College and its spin-off company Ervitech is one of the recipients of the first round of our CRACK IT awards. The team fought off stiff competition from five other groups, in a 'Dragons' Den' style research competition, to win the £500,000 grant which will be used to meet a challenge that has been posed by the pharmaceutical company Lilly. 

Lilly's need is for a way to record the brain activity of mice that allows them to behave more naturally as they move through T-shaped laboratory mazes.  Such mazes are used widely in research to assess the spatial awareness and memory of mice, which in turn helps with understanding psychiatric disease in people. 

Today's equipment means that the mice are handled frequently, which is known to cause stress.  They must also be tethered, which requires individual housing.  Lilly would like to find an option that addresses these drawbacks and improves the quality of the research. 

The Imperial College team envisages wireless recorders weighing less than 3g that are able to transmit data for at least 24 hours.  This winning proposal opens the way for automatic tests that will need neither tethering nor human intervention.  Automation permits mice to enter the maze voluntarily and to keep in contact with cage mates.  Not only does this benefit animal welfare, but it will mean more data from fewer animals and less variability in results, benefiting the science and eventually the treatment of these conditions. 

"This is an enormously exciting prospect," said Dr Esther Rodriguez-Villegas, of Imperial College London, who is leading the response to the Lilly challenge. "It is going to require the close integration of many innovative technologies.  We need to devise state-of-the-art low power amplifiers and new wireless communication circuits. We also have to tackle the new challenges raised when combining multiple innovative and state-of-the-art technologies into a very small package. Lilly has set some ambitious specifications for us to meet, but if successful we can have a huge impact on mouse welfare."

Lilly scientist, John Huxter, said: "CRACK IT has been one of the most enjoyable things I've participated in this year, and it is genuinely exciting from a scientific perspective. The NC3Rs and Lilly have found an excellent team in Esther and her colleagues and I look forward to working with her and the rest of the Imperial College team."

The wireless recording project will be underway by April 2012 with Lilly providing in-kind contributions to support the funding from the NC3Rs. 


Notes for Editors

  1. For more information contact the NC3Rs media office.
  2.  Full details of the CRACK IT open innovation scheme can be found in the 2011 NC3Rs Annual Report and CRACK IT website
  3. All challenges were funded by the NC3Rs, with DEFRA contributing to one. 
  4. The NC3Rs is a scientific organisation which leads the discovery, development and promotion of new ways to replace, reduce and refine the use of animals in research and testing (the 3Rs). It is primarily supported by Government, but also receives funding from the charitable and industrial sectors. The Centre has an annual budget of approximately £5.5 million and is the UK’s major funder of 3Rs research. 
  5. About Imperial College London: Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution  with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 14,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture. Website: Twitter: Podcast:

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