Brain control at the flick of a light switch

Scientists have developed a new method of brain control that can manipulate neurons simply by shining a light outside the skull. This noninvasive process could be used to treat epilepsy and other brain disorders.

The technology, called optogenetics, typically needs the light source to be directly implanted within the brain for the cells’ electrical signals to be affected.

Hoping to eliminate the need for this direct implantation, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology looked to the light-responsive molecules found in microbes for inspiration.

Optogenetics is often used when studying the brain because it allows scientists to turn certain neurons on and off to better understand their functions.

However, surgical implantation of the light source is challenging, and the implant can make studies of brain development and disease difficult because of its effects on growth.

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Though none of the molecules had light-sensing capabilities strong enough for noninvasive control originally, the scientists were able to genetically engineer a protein from related microbes with an impressive sensitivity to light. They named this protein Jaws.

The team of engineers, led by Professor Ed Boyden, tested the Jaws protein on mice. They used Jaws to completely shut down neural activity in a mouse’s brain just by shining a light at its head.

“This exemplifies how the genomic diversity of the natural world can yield powerful reagents that can be of use in biology and neuroscience,” explained Boyden.

Jaws has already shown potential for treating a disease called retinis pigmentosa, which can cause blindness by weakening the light sensitivity of retinal cells. Because Jaws has a wider range of light sensitivity, it could help restore vision.

Noninvasive brain control could also help epileptic patients by shutting off the neurons that misfire and cause seizures.

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Though a promising technology, don’t expect your doctor to be using it anytime soon: “Since these molecules come from species other than humans, many studies must be done to evaluate their safety and efficacy in the context of treatment,” Boyden said, emphasizing that Jaws is still in its developmental phase.

Engineers at MIT are also exploring additional uses for Jaws and searching for other proteins that could have similar applications.

The medical uses of these noninvasive brain control techniques could prove groundbreaking, but their potential implications are more than a little problematic. The prospect of being able to turn your brain off with the flick of a light switch, while alarming, could be a possibility in the not-so-distant future.


First body image courtesy of Arielle Fragrassi. Second body image courtesy of Paul Cross.


Thirst for data: Nutrition apps and software to be revolutionised by semantic technology

Apps, software and services that provide us with in-depth information about the food we eat have never been more popular. From calorie counts to gluten content, we want to know a phenomenal range of information about their food, and developers have been falling over themselves to create systems to provide us with this information.

However, getting this information has always been a challenge, with the majority making use of the US’ Food and Drug Administration database, which lacks the detail and range that many consumers crave.

“When it comes it nutrition, the quality of the data is low,” explained Massimiliano Del Vita, CEO and co-founder of Klappo, speaking yesterday at a demo day at Techspace, a London-based startup hub.

Klappo, a company just eight months old, is set on changing that by collecting in-depth nutritional data from a vast range of sources, including recipes, restaurant menus and packaging labels. The result is far more information that you would get from a typical food label.

They make this information available to developers, who can then use it to make more sophisticated nutritional apps and software, such as apps that tell you if a product contains lactose or gluten, or if a recipe suits a specific diet.

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Klappo’s system is far more sophisticated because of its use of semantic technology. This means it can ‘read’ the data to extrapolate advanced nutritional information.

“This is really powerful as it allows us to know what food i made of, what ingredients it is made of,” explained Del Vita.

For recipes, for example, it doesn’t just use the list the ingredients but instead semantically reads the instructions to create an accurate picture of what the cooking process is and what the resulting nutritional information will be; a factor that will change depending on how food is prepared.

For recipes the company can calculate 160 macro and micronutrients, a vast improvement on the majority of products that only tell you the calorie count.

The system will be immensely valuable to existing food blogs and recipe sites, with a leading Italian blog set to start using the technology within the year.

From the 4th July, when Klappo launches in the US, the company will also have data on 400,000 pre-packaged food products.

“This, I would say, is the vast majority of packaged products in supermarkets,” said Del Vita.

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The company are targeting the US and Europe, where data is accessible, although hope to expand further over time.

Klappo is keen to keep the data they collect clear and without bias so that it can be easily used by a vast range of developers.

“Our idea is to be as unbiased as possible for companies to use the data,” explained Del Vita. “There’s a lot of things we can do to map the information that can be used externally.”

Despite Klappo’s small size – just five employees – the company is reaching for the stars.

“We want to be the Google of this,” said Del Vita.