Neuroscientists funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have developed an ultra-thin, minimally invasive device for controlling brain cells with drugs and light, and demonstrated that the device allows for wireless brain control by remotely drugging and controlling mice.
The research results are published in Cell with the title “Wireless Optofluidic Systems for Programmable In Vivo Pharmacology and Optogenetics.”
Optogenetics is a relatively new neuroscience approach that combines genetics with the physics of light. It uses light to monitor and control neurons that have been genetically modified to sense and respond to light. Optogenetics allows neuroscientists to control and monitor the activities of individual neurons in living tissue.
“This is the kind of revolutionary tool development that neuroscientists need to map out brain circuit activity,” said James Gnadt, Ph.D., program director at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
Washington University School of Medicine professor Michael R. Bruchas added that the study opens new ways for scientists to learn how brain circuits work in a more natural setting.
The scientists used soft materials and semi-conductor computer chip manufacturing techniques to create a brain implant a tenth the width of a human hair, that can wirelessly control neurons with lights and drugs. The implant has room for up to four drugs and has four microscale inorganic light-emitting diodes.
“We used powerful nano-manufacturing strategies to fabricate an implant that lets us penetrate deep inside the brain with minimal damage,” said University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor John A. Rogers. “Ultra-miniaturized devices like this have tremendous potential for science and medicine.”
University of Colorado Boulder professor Jae-Woong Jeong added that:
We tried to engineer the implant to meet some of neurosciences greatest unmet needs. To test the capabilities of the implant the neuroscientists inserted the device in the brains of mice and mapped neural circuits by using the implant to inject viruses that label cells with genetic dyes. In other experiments, they made mice walk in circles by injecting drugs in special regions of the mice’s brains. The scientists also tested the combined light and drug delivery potential of the implant on mice with light-sensitive neurons.
The scientists provide detailed instructions for manufacturing the implant, and express support for an open, crowdsourcing approach to neuroscience. The technology has enormous implications for detailed studies of the brain and future clinical applications. One day the wireless device could be used to treat pain, depression, epilepsy and other neurological disorders in people by targeting therapies to specific brain circuits, the researchers said. On the other hand, it opens the way to brain implants that could be used by malicious neuro-hackers to drug and remotely control people.
What makes it so amazing is also what makes it so scary. Consider this…Research graduate Jordan G. McCall said it is now “literally” possible to deliver drugs with the push of a button. “We’ve designed [the device] to exploit infrared technology, similar to that used in a TV remote,” McCall said. “If we want to influence an animal’s behavior with light or with a particular drug, we can simply point the remote at the animal and press a button,” he added.