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Did Scientists Just Crack Mind Control?

Did Scientists Just Crack Mind Control?
August 15
09:22 2016

A cadre of researchers at Washington University’s School of Medicine and the University of Illinois have created a futuristic, remote-controlled tissue implant that allows them to manipulate the neurons inside a mouse’s brain. With the push of a button, they can determine where the mouse will walk.

The next-generation device “unplugs a world of possibilities for scientists to learn how brain circuits work in a more natural setting,” explains lead study author Michael R. Bruchas, Ph.D.

Dr. Bruchas is an associate professor of neurobiology and anesthesiology at Washington University. His lab focuses on brain circuitry in relation to addiction, stress, depression, and pain. Traditionally, scientists studying these circuits must choose between Injecting drugs via bulky metal tubes (“cannulas”) orFlashing lights through fiber optic cables

Both of these options require potentially harmful surgeries that can hinder an animal’s natural movements and introduce more variables to the experiment.

Jae-Woong Jeong, Ph.D. and Jordan G. McCall, Ph.D. worked together to address this problem. The goal was to build a remote-controlled, optofluidic implant that would allow scientists to easily deliver drugs and lights.

“We used powerful nano-manufacturing strategies to fabricate an implant that lets us penetrate deep inside the brain with minimal damage,” explains Professor John A. Rogers, Ph.D. “Ultra-miniaturized devices like this have tremendous potential for science and medicine.”

The brain implant (pictured at right) is about 1/10th the width of a human hair (to be more precise: 80 micrometers x 500 micrometers). The new implant does far less damage than a traditional cannula. The team tested the probe’s potential by implanting it into the brains of mice. With it, they were able to:

  • Make the mice walk in circles by injecting a morphine-like drug into the VTA (ventral tegmental area)
  • Map circuits by injecting viruses that “mark” cells with genetic dyes
  • Keep mice on one side of a cage by shining laser pulses on light-sensitive VTA neurons.

In all of these experiments, the mice were within three feet of the command antenna. “This is the kind of revolutionary tool development that neuroscientists need to map out brain circuit activity,” says program director James Gnadt, Ph.D. “It’s in line with the goals of the NIH’s BRAIN Initiative.”

The team was able to develop the brain probe using semi-conductor computer chip manufacturing techniques. The tiny implant has four microscale inorganic light-emitting diodes and room for up to four different drugs. An expandable material at the bottom of the drug channels controls delivery.

“We tried at least 30 different prototypes before one finally worked,” admits Dr. McCall.

“This was truly an interdisciplinary effort,” says Dr. Jeong. “We tried to engineer the implant to meet some of neurosciences greatest unmet needs.”

The study, published in the online journal Cell includes detailed instructions for manufacturing the brain probe. “A tool is only good if it’s used,” explains Dr. Bruchas. “We believe an open, crowdsourcing approach to neuroscience is a great way to understand normal and healthy brain circuitry.”

Research and development for the brain implant was partially funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

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