Brain Implant Gives Scientists Wireless Mind Control

Controlling someone’s brain by implanting an electronic device is a common plot element in horror and sci-fi films and TV shows. Remember the super disturbing The Terminal Man? Or the episodes of Archer where the Russians have put a microchip in his head that leaves him wanting to kill his own mother? Well, now US researchers have developed a remote-controlled brain implant that allows them to choose the path a mouse walks through a maze with just a push of a button. Let’s hope they use their newfound powers for good and not evil.

The human brain: a new implant, only tested in mice so far, will allow scientists both better understanding of and control over the brain. Image by Allan Ajifo.The human brain: a new implant, only tested in mice so far, will allow scientists both better understanding of and control over the brain. Image by Allan Ajifo.

The study was conducted at the Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, and University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign by researchers who were interested in neuron circuits that control a number of disorders originating in the brain including depression, stress, addiction and pain. Generally, monitoring and managing these circuits involves the use of potentially harmful surgery to install a metal tube for drug delivery, or a fiber optic cable for light-based therapy and analysis. Aside from potential pitfalls to the patient, the invasive surgery required can also impact the brain chemistry thereby clouding the results of the study. Hence the need for a new alternative, recently developed by bioengineer Jae-Woong Jeong, Ph.D. and graduate student Jordan G. McCall, Ph.D.

The new implant is remote controlled, made of exclusively “soft” materials, and about ten times thinner than a human hair! Not only that, but unlike previous devices, it can simultaneously deliver both light and pharmaceuticals to a specific region of the brain. Manufactured using standard semiconductor nano-manufacturing techniques, the device can hold up to four drugs and contains four unique light-emitting diodes. Its size and deformability also led to decreased damage and displacement of surrounding brain tissue as compared with metallic alternatives.

To measure the performance of the device, it was implanted into the brains of mice who were then subjected to a gamut of tests. In a first trial, the implant was used to inject viruses into the brain, each of which contained a genetic dye. This allowed the scientists to precisely map the surrounding circuitry. The mice could also be made to walk in circles through the injection of narcotic drugs to the region of the brain responsible for motivation and addiction. These two experiments already reveal the potential for such a device (both therapeutic and nefarious), but its true power comes in coupling both its drug injection and light delivering properties. Using mice modified such that their neurons are light sensitive, a relatively popular modern technique known as optogenetics, the implant could then be wirelessly commanded to fire laser pulses which directly impact the subjects’ behavior. The simultaneous injection of certain neuron communication-disrupting drugs reverses the effect.

Despite the obvious negative connotations of such a device present in popular media, this implant is actually a significant step forward in human health research and offers a ray of hope for those suffering from brain disorders, which are often misunderstood. Says senior study author Michael R. Bruchas, "it unplugs a world of possibilities for scientists to learn how brain circuits work in a more natural setting." Believing that "a tool is only good if it's used", Bruchas and team have released the manufacturing details of the implant in hopes that neuroscientists worldwide will adopt and improve upon it. Let’s just hope those instructions don’t fall into the wrong hands…

Via Science Daily and the journal Cell.