Home Sciences They hack the brain of a fly and remotely control its movements

They hack the brain of a fly and remotely control its movements

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Scientists have hacked into a fly’s brain and manipulated its neurons to remotely control its movements. Through magnetic fields modulated at will, they stimulate neurons that in half a second trigger induced behaviors. A technology that is also being explored for humans.

Researchers at Rice University, Duke University, Brown University and Baylor School of Medicine have remotely controlled a fly’s movements by remotely activating specific neurons.

This technology, which combines genetic engineering, nanotechnology and electrical engineering, activates neural circuits about 50 times faster than the best previously demonstrated technology for magnetic stimulation of genetically defined neurons, according to the researchers.

To achieve this, they used magnetic signals to activate neurons: this allowed them to control the body position of fruit flies moving freely around an enclosure. The results of this work are published in the journal Nature Materials.

This ability to activate genetically selected cells at precise times could be a powerful tool for studying the brain, treating disease and developing direct brain-machine communication technology, according to the researchers.

Magnetogenetics

All this development is based on the magnetogeneticsa biological technique that involves the use of magnetic fields to remotely control cellular activity.

This technology, which uses the activation of neurons through magnetic fields, could be applied to cases of Parkinson’s, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or even epilepsy, to replace the electrodes currently used for deep brain stimulation.

The wireless technology developed in this research to remotely activate specific brain circuits in fruit flies achieves the speed of the magnetic remote control achieved approximates the speed of the braingiving hope for therapies without surgery.

However, the timed activation of specific cells is not entirely new, as it has been used before to study the brain, treat diseases (deep stimulation for Parkinson’s or epilepsy), and develop direct brain-machine or brain-to-brain communication technology. brain.

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Playing with the heat

What is really significant about the new research is that it provides an original way of controlling neurons with electromagnets: it uses the heating of magnetic nanoparticles introduced into the ion channels of temperature-sensitive neurons.

Specifically, the researchers began by genetically modifying the flies so that they express this specific heat-sensitive ion channel in some of their neurons: they injected them with nanoparticles of magnetic iron oxide, which can be heated by a magnetic field.

The neurons selected to receive these nanoparticles are the ones that cause the flies to partially extend their wings when they consider mating.

The enclosure where the flies were was deposited on an electromagnet: the magnetic field that affects the flies is altered by the flow of an electric current that reaches the electromagnet through the researchers.

When the researchers activate the electromagnet with an electrical charge, the ion channel implanted in the neurons captures that heat. Then the channel opens and activates the neuron: the fly spreads its wings.

An analysis of the video of the experiments found that the flies, with the genetic modifications, adopted the posture of wings spread around half a second later of the change in the magnetic field.

critical technology

This development has crumb, since its claims are not limited to the fruit fly, which is only the proof of concept of a more ambitious technology.

Jacob Robinsonthe main author of this research, is at the same time the director of the project Magnetic, Optical And Acoustic Neural Access (MOANA), funded by DARPA to develop headset technology for non-surgical, wireless, brain-to-brain communication, according to the same Rice University where Robinson works.

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The long-term goal of this work is to create methods to activate specific brain regions in humans for therapeutic purposes without having to perform surgery, Robinson explains.

More specifically, Robinson’s team is working toward the goal of partially restoring vision to blind patients by stimulating parts of the brain associated with vision.

Is there something else?

However, the reality is that the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is an agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of new technologies for military use. And it is the one that is also financing the remote brain control project of the fruit fly using magnetogenetics.

One of DARPA’s stated goals is to develop an interface capable of decoding neuronal activity in the cerebral cortex and redirecting this activity in another person’s brain, something that has already been achieved with fruit flies.

Connected to the brain of a rat

But it has not been the only attempt. In 2019, Chinese scientists connected a human brain with the brain of a rat and got the rodent to follow the cues provided by the human brain to get out of a maze.

In 2021, researchers at the University of Miami developed magnetoelectric nanoparticles (MENPs) that, integrated into the human bloodstream, can reach the brain, record a person’s mental activity, and transfer that information to an external computer.

In both cases, the technology used has been different, but no previous experiment has gone so far in trying to manipulate the brain of another living being, with the aim of discovering how to achieve it with human beings.

Reference

Subsecond multichannel magnetic control of select neural circuits in freely moving flies. Charles Sebesta et al. Nature Materials (2022). DOI:https://doi.org/10.1038/s41563-022-01281-7

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