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.


Steve “Woz” Wozniak to advise hologram emoji company that he calls “groundbreaking”

Apple’s co-founder Steve “Woz” Wozniak has found himself a new gig; Woz has joined the hologram emoji company, Mojiit, as an adviser.

In his role as advisor to Mojiit, the legendary entrepreneur and engineer will help assemble a world-class engineering team in addition to bringing investors and partnerships to the newly launched startup. Wozniak will also serve as mentor to Mojiit founder, Jeremy Greene.

“I’m thrilled to join Mojiit as an advisor,” said Wozniak. “Jeremy is a natural leader, the company is groundbreaking, it’s going to change the ecommerce space, and it’s a lot of fun.”

Created in 2017, Mojiit is the latest startup technology venture from Greene. The company’s tech essentially enables users to project and share 3D hologram emojis via smartphones.

The platform turns users into emojis by scanning their face, which can then be sent to loved ones and friends. Once a Mojiit message is received, it will map the area where it is received and place the Mojiit hologram there in real time, so it works in a similar way to Pokemon Go.

“Steve is one of the best and brilliant engineers in the entire world. But outside of that, he’s a wonderful man,” said Greene. “There isn’t anyone I’d want to be in business with more than this guy. He’s a legend. Who better to learn from than the guy who created the computer?”

Image courtesy of Nichollas Harrison. Featured image courtesy of Mojiit

In addition to consumer use, businesses of all kinds can tap into hologram emojis with Mojiit’s technology.

Mojiit investors already  include NFL alum Ed Reed, and the company was able to raise a total of $1 million in its seed round of funding.

Alongside the appointment of Woz, Entourage and Ballers producer Rob Weiss recently joined the company as a creative director.

“It’s exciting to expand beyond television and film to digital platforms,” said Weiss. “Hologram technology brings incredible opportunity to entertainment and media. I’m thrilled to be leading creative at Mojiit.”

Nanoengineers send antibiotic-delivering micromotors into the body to treat cancer-causing infection

Nanoengineers have demonstrated for the first time how “micromotors” that measure half the width of a human hair can be used to transport antibiotics through the body.

Nanoengineers at the University of California San Diego tested the micromotors in mice with Helicobacter pylori infections, which can also be found in about two-thirds of the world’s population and while many people will never notice any signs of its presence it can cause peptic ulcers and stomach cancer.

The mice received the micromotors – packed with a clinical dose of the antibiotic clarithromycin – orally once a day for five consecutive days.

Afterwards, nanoengineers evaluated the bacterial count in each mouse stomach and found that treatment with the micromotors was slightly more effective than when the same dose of antibiotic was given in combination with proton pump inhibitors, which also suppress gastric acid production.

Micromotors administered to the mice swam rapidly throughout the stomach while neutralising gastric acid, which can be destructive to orally administered drugs such as antibiotics and protein-based pharmaceuticals.

Because gastric acid is so destructive to traditional antibiotics drugs used to treat bacterial infections, ulcers and other diseases in the stomach are normally taken with additional substances, called proton pump inhibitors.

But when taken over longer periods or in high doses, proton pump inhibitors can cause adverse side effects including headaches, diarrhea and fatigue. In more serious cases, they can cause anxiety or depression.

The micromotors, however, have a built-in mechanism that neutralises gastric acid and effectively deliver their drug payloads in the stomach without requiring the use of proton pump inhibitors.

“It’s a one-step treatment with these micromotors, combining acid neutralisation with therapeutic action,” said Berta Esteban-Fernández de Ávila, a postdoctoral scholar in Wang’s research group at UC San Diego and a co-first author of the paper.

The nanoengineers say that while the present results are promising, this work is still at an early stage.

To test their work, the team is planning future studies to into the therapeutic performance of the micromotors in animals and humans, and will compare it with other standard therapies used to combat stomach diseases.

UC San Diego nanoengineers also plan to test different drug combinations with the micromotors to treat multiple diseases in the stomach or in different sections of the gastrointestinal tract.

Overall, the researchers say that this work opens the door to the use of synthetic motors as active delivery platforms in the treatment of diseases.

Image and video courtesy of the Laboratory for Nanobioelectronics at UC San Diego.