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.


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