remote controlled rat Remote Controlled Rats

Head top unit

Last month we covered Kevin Warwick’s creation of a robot controlled remotely by living rat brain tissue. This month a similar project by a group at MIT has completed almost exactly the same task in reverse. Electrodes implanted in a rat’s brain have been used to remotely control the rat’s movements by delivering impulses of light directly in to the brain tissue.  Until now a problem for this method has been the size of the batteries required to power the unit that sits on the rat’s head. This problem has been solved to some extent by using “wireless power”, which consists of placing a small magnetic coil on the head top unit and transmitting electricity via a magnetic field from a nearby magnetic coil.

remote controlled rat 21 Remote Controlled Rats

Wirelessly powered and controlled optogenetics

The remote control addition to this project is the ground breaking element here. It has long been known that electric stimulation of the brain can illicit specific behaviours. More recently the field of optogenetics has emerged becoming Nature’s “method of the year” in 2010. Optogenetics involves the use of a gene for producing light-sensitive protein in algae which is tied to the promoter for another gene which identifies neurons that elicit a given behaviour such as sex, aggression or the flight response. The light sensitive protein itself (such as channelrhodopsin) then activates those neurons electrically when the light is on. The modified gene is then delivered in to the brain by a virus. The neurons that trigger a particular behaviour can then be activated at the flick of a switch just by shining light on the brain using an LED.

Believe it or not, the purpose of this research isn’t a macabre project to develop Frankenstein pets. The emerging fields of optogenetics and remote power transmission combined are likely to result in vast developments in the fields of neural prosthetics. Theoretically there are also endless possibilities for the management of mood disorders. Optogenetics will surely be a field I’ll be keeping my eye on.

The original paper is open-access for 30 days (PDF)

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Wentz CT, Bernstein JG, Monahan P, Guerra A, Rodriguez A, & Boyden ES (2011). A wirelessly powered and controlled device for optical neural control of freely-behaving animals. Journal of neural engineering, 8 (4) PMID: 21701058

Via Ed Yong on Not Exactly Rocket Science


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  • http://www.usbcustomflashdrives.com Customizeusb

    This is pretty scary stuff! There may come a time where you can remote control your family!?

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  • Blake Richards

    Hi there,

    First, I just wanna say: love the blog. Really entertaining and thought provoking.

    Regarding this post: optogenetics is pretty amazing! We just had Ed Boyden visit us here at Oxford and his talks generated a lot of excitement.

    One issue with the post, though, is that your description of what optogenetics involves is incorrect. You wrote:

    Optogenetics involves programming a gene to illicit a behaviour such as sex, aggression or the flight response. The gene is then tied to a light sensitive protein that is harvested from light sensitive algae. This modified gene is then delivered in to the brain by a virus. The gene can then be activated at the flick of a switch just by shining light on the brain using an LED.

    The incorrect bit starts with the idea that a specific gene is programmed to elicit a behaviour. This isn’t what’s done. Instead, the gene for producing the light-sensitive protein from the algae is tied to the promoter for another gene which identifies neurons that elicit a given behaviour. The light sensitive protein itself (such as channelrhodopsin) then activates those neurons electrically when the light is on. As such, the light can trigger a behaviour – not because it’s activating a gene, but because it’s driving neurons involved in generating that behaviour.

    Cheers,

    Blake Richards
    Dept. of Pharmacology
    University of Oxford

    • http://neurobonkers.com Neurobonkers

      Hi Blake,

      Many thanks for the kind words, I very much appreciate you taking the time writing such a helpful explanation. I’ve corrected the article, hope I got it right this time!

      Best Wishes!

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