DARPA and NIH-Funded ‘Neuroengineers’ Create ‘Wireless Technology to Remotely Activate Specific Brain Circuits’ Using Magnetic Fields and Nanoparticles

Using DARPA and NIH funding, a team of scientists led by Rice University “neuroengineers” has created wireless technology to remotely activate specific brain circuits in fruit flies on the sub-second timescale using magnetic fields and nanoparticles.

A team of scientists led by Rice University “neuroengineers” has created wireless technology to “remotely activate specific brain circuits” on the sub-second timescale. To demonstrate the capability, the neuroengineers used magnetic fields to “activate targeted neurons that controlled the body position of freely moving fruit flies in an enclosure.” The scientists say this research furthers the drive toward the “holy grail of neurotechnologies”: remote control of select neural circuits with magnetic fields.

Incredibly, this use of magnetic fields to control select brain circuits remotely is not new technology. The technique is referred to as “magnetogenetics” and this particular demonstration—outlined in Nature Materials—mainly aims to demonstrate “precise temporal modulation of neural activity” on sub-second timescales as well as “stimulation of different groups of neurons” using varying digital signals.

Previously, the neuroengineers note in their paper, in vivo (in the body) response time of thermal magnetogenetics was on the order of tens of seconds, and was not able to stimulate different groups of neurons.

Image: C. Sebesta and J. Robinson/Rice University

“Thermal” magnetogenetics, in this instance, refers to the use of magnetic nanoparticles in conjunction with heat-sensitive ion channels in the scientists’ flies’ brains. To develop the heat-sensitive ion channels, the neuroengineers genetically engineered the flies so some of their neurons (brain cells) would express them. The heat-sensitive ion channels, more specifically, are pore-forming membrane proteins that allow ions (atoms with an electric charge) to pass, and are opened by, in this instance, heat.

After genetically modifying the flies’ neurons to express the heat-sensitive ion channels, the neuroengineers then injected superparamagnetic iron oxide particles, which they could heat using magnetic fields. When the scientists hit the iron oxide particles with the magnetic fields, they heated up; in turn opening the ion channels and activating the genetically engineered neurons.

Image: C. Sebesta and J. Robinson/Rice University

Using this method the neuroengineers were able to produce sub-second behavioral responses in the flies. In the video at top the scientists show how they were able to compel a fly to spread its wings by affecting the relevant neurons. The team was able to pull off this feat by tuning the magnetic nanoparticles to respond to different magnetic field strengths and frequencies—meaning some magnetic strengths or frequencies activated some groups of neurons while other magnetic strengths and frequencies activated other groups.

“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,” Jacob Robinson, Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Bio Engineering at Rice University and co-author of the study, told New Atlas for a report on the brain-control tech. “Remote control of select 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” the scientist added.

In a press release Rice University notes “The team’s direct goal is to use this kind of technology to restore some sight to patients with vision impairments.” Although Rice adds that “DARPA, who is funding the project, has different plans,” noting that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency “Ultimately it wants to develop a headset that can read the neural activity in one person’s brain and then write it to another brain, basically transferring thoughts or perceptions between people.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which has funded, and continues to fund, enormous amounts of gain-of-function (GOF) research, also helped to finance the brain-control research.

Feature image: Rice University

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