In an interesting development, a group of researchers has created wireless technology to remotely activate specific brain circuits in fruit flies in just one second.
In a published demonstration in Nature Materials, researchers from Rice, Duke University, Brown University and Baylor College of Medicine used magnetic signals to activate targeted neurons that controlled freely moving fruit flies’ body position in an enclosure.
“To study the brain or to treat neurological disorders the scientific community is searching for tools that are both incredibly precise, but also minimally invasive,” said study author Jacob Robinson, an associate professor in electrical and computer engineering at Rice, was quoted as saying by news agency ANI.
Robinson, who is also a member of Rice’s Neuroengineering Initiative, added, “Remote control of selected neural circuits with magnetic fields is somewhat of a holy grail for neurotechnologies. Our work takes an important step toward that goal because it increases the speed of remote magnetic control, making it closer to the natural speed of the brain.”
Further adding, he said, “This new technology activates neural circuits about 50 times faster than the best previously demonstrated technology for magnetic stimulation of genetically defined neurons.”
How was this possible?
Robinson shared that this development was really a team effort of world-class scientists as experts from genetic engineering, nanotechnology and electrical engineering came together to bring this idea into existence.
Genetic engineering was used by the researchers to express a special heat-sensitive ion channel in neurons that cause flies to partially spread their wings, a common mating gesture. The researchers then injected magnetic nanoparticles that could be heated with an applied magnetic field. In order to activate the neurons and heat the nanoparticles, the researchers kept changing the magnet’s field in a specified way.
An analysis of video from the experiments showed that within approximately half a second of the change in the magnetic field, flies with the genetic modifications showed the wing-spread posture.
Robinson also believed that this ability to activate genetically targeted cells at precise times could be a powerful tool for studying the brain, treating disease and developing direct brain-machine communication technology in the coming future.