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.

8699716373_2c6f15c3ff_o

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.

lights2

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.


Clearing the way: Autonomous drones built with sensors to avoid objects

There are many hurdles manufacturers of drones face before they will be able to deliver packages using UAVS, but the solution to one problem may be just around the corner.

In fact, the solution could involve more corners as they attempt to stop drones from bumping into objects when flying autonomously.

One inventor is trying to achieve this by building a smart  drone that can sense objects around it and avoid crashing into them. The drone will have a series of sensors attached to it as well as having a wind turbine built in.

A flight controller system is being developed to stabilise the drone in high wind situations to ensure it can fly without crashing.

The founders say: “The flight controller is brain of GreenCopter that will determine copter’s behavior in terms of thrust, lift, agility, and system failure situations.

“The system will feature protection scheme in case one of the motor fail during the flight where GreenCopter will initiate return to launch coordinate and land safely.”

infadrone

The manufacturers say the drone will use wind and solar power to reduce the need to be charged from traditional power sources. It will also have the ability to conduct autonomous flights and also avoid collisions at the same time.

The drone will be able to land itself automatically and charge itself when it runs low on power or loses communications with the operator.

It is set to feature eight infrared and ultransonic sensors that will help the drone to avoid objects in its flight path. The sensors are set to be mounted at each side of the drone and be able to detect objects at a maximum distance of almost 200 inches.

The drone can carry up to 88lbs when it is flying.

infadrone2

The biggest challenge for the project at present is the ability to mount the wind turbine on the drone and ensure its balance during flight.

Potentially the solution to the problem is a algorithm in the flight controller and sensor system.

Writing on their their crowdfunding page, the founders of the project say: “The campaign is aimed to set new grounds to new breed of UAVs through an R&D process that leads to many classes of UAVs.

“The new classes will hold a key essence to any individual and that is simplifying tasks carried out each day.”


Images courtesy of GreenCopter