Scientists hack fly brains to make them remote controlled
Researchers at Rice University have shown how they can hack the brains of fruit flies to make them remote controlled. The flies performed a specific action within a second of a command being sent to certain neurons in their brain.
The team started by genetically engineering the flies so that they expressed a certain heat-sensitive ion channel in some of their neurons. When this channel sensed heat, it would activate the neuron – in this case, that neuron caused the fly to spread its wings, which is a gesture they often use during mating.
The heat trigger came in the form of iron oxide nanoparticles injected into the insects’ brains. When a magnetic field is switched on nearby, those particles heat up, causing the neurons to fire and the fly to adopt the spread-wing pose.
To test the system, the researchers kept these engineered flies in a small enclosure atop a magnetic coil, and watched them with overhead cameras. And sure enough, when the magnetic field was switched on, the flies spread their wings within about half a second.
“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,” said Jacob Robinson, an author of the study. “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 team’s direct goal is to use this kind of technology to restore some sight to patients with vision impairments. By stimulating the visual cortex, they might be able to essentially bypass the eyes. Similar techniques have been used to control the movements of mice, which could lead to better treatments for mobility issues with their root causes in the brain.
DARPA, who is funding the project, has different plans. 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. You’d be forgiven for finding that concept a bit spooky.
The research was published in the journal Nature Materials, and the remote-controlled flies can be seen spreading their wings in the video below.
Source: Rice University