This minimally invasive wireless technology could be used in the future to restore vision in blind patients.
Neuroengineers managed to activate and deactivate neurons and neural circuits of the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) remotely and non-invasively and, for subseconds, controlled its flight.
The new technology uses magnetogenetics, nanoparticles, electromagnets and is 50 times faster, in fact approaching the natural speed of the brain.
The advance was published in the journal Nature Materials and its objective, in the medium term, is to achieve –with non-invasive methods– stimulate the deep ocular tissue of blind people so that they can restore their vision. We tell you.
Remote and minimally invasive technology
Interdisciplinary research brings together specialists in genetic engineering, nanotechnology and electrical engineering. Together they put together the pieces to make the idea work.
Using magnetogenetics, that is, the magnetic control of cellular activity, researchers at Rice University, Duke University, Brown University, and Baylor College of Medicine used magnetic signals to activate specific neurons that control the fly’s body. the fruit, remotely and non-invasively.
First, they succeeded in expressing a special heat-sensitive ion channel in the flies’ neurons so that they partially spread their wings.
Second, they were injected with magnetic nanoparticles that could be heated in an applied magnetic field.
Third, they set the models to roam in an enclosure controlled by an electromagnet, when they changed the magnet’s field in a specific way, the nanoparticles heated up and the neurons were activated.
Everything was recorded and when analyzing the videos with experiments, it was observed that the flies with the genetic modifications extended their wings —in a movement similar to that of mating— when the magnetic field was modified.
A relevant breakthrough came from the lead author, Charles Sebesta, who had the idea of using a new ion channel that was sensitive to the rate of change of temperature.
This new technology activates neural circuits about 50 times faster than previous technology.
study neurological disorders
This wireless technology could be a powerful tool for studying the brain, treating disease, and developing direct brain-machine communication devices.
Jacob Robinson, co-author of the study and professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University, explains in a statement that “the scientific community is looking for tools that are incredibly precise, but also minimally invasive.”
And he adds “our work takes an important step towards remote control of neural circuits because it increases the speed of remote magnetic control, approaching the natural speed of the brain.”
One possible application would be to partially restore vision to blind patients by stimulating parts of the brain associated with vision.
Robinson is a member of the MOANA project (which in Spanish means magnetic, optical and acoustic neural access) which seeks to develop headphones that can “read” or decode the neural activity in a person’s visual cortex and “write” or encode that activity in another person’s brain.
However, at the moment, the in vivo response time of thermal magnetogenetics is subseconds, which precludes precise temporal modulation of neuronal activity.
“To get to the natural precision of the brain, we probably need to get a response of a few hundredths of a second. So there is still a long way to go,” according to Robinson.