MechResCon2023: Specific brain circuits can be remotely activated in less than a second thanks to new wireless technologies.

Wireless technology has been developed by a research team lead by Rice University neuroengineers to quickly and remotely stimulate particular brain circuits in fruit flies. 

Researchers from Rice, Duke, Brown, and Baylor College of Medicine utilised magnetic signals to activate specific neurons that regulated the body position of freely flying fruit flies in an enclosure in a demonstration that was published in Nature Materials.

                      "The scientific community is looking for instruments that are extremely precise but also minimally intrusive to research the brain or cure neurological problems. The holy grail of neurotechnologies is to use magnetic fields to remotely regulate specific brain circuits. Our research makes a significant advancement toward that end by speeding up remote magnetic control so that it is more comparable to the brain's natural pace. 

Author of the paper, Rice Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Participant in Rice's Neuroengineering Initiative Jacob Robinson"

According to Robinson, the latest technique for magnetic stimulation of genetically determined neurons activates brain circuits around 50 times more quickly than the finest previously proven technology. 

Charles Sebesta, the primary author, came up with the concept to use a new ion channel that was sensitive to the rate of temperature change, which allowed for advancement, according to Robinson. "We were able to put everything together and demonstrate that this concept works by bringing together expertise in genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and electrical engineering. We had the privilege of working with a team of top scientists on this project."

The scientists expressed a unique heat-sensitive ion channel in neurons by genetic engineering, causing flies to partially expand their wings, a typical mating action. Then the scientists inserted magnetic nanoparticles that could be heated by a magnetic field. Flies were observed via an overhead camera as they freely wandered a space atop an electromagnet. The scientists were able to heat the nanoparticles and stimulate the neurons by precisely altering the magnetic field of the magnet. When the magnetic field changed, the genetically modified flies assumed the wing-spread position within about a half-second, according to a study of video from the tests.

According to Robinson, the capacity to selectively activate genetically specified cells at specific periods could be a useful tool for researching the brain, treating illness, and creating technology that directly connects the brain to machines. 

Robinson is the project's primary investigator on MOANA, a large-scale effort to create headset technology enabling wireless, non-invasive brain-to-brain communication. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding the MOANA project, which stands for "magnetic, optical and acoustic neural access," to create headset technology that can both "read," or decode, neural activity in one person's visual cortex, and "write," or encode, that activity in another person's brain. One instance of the latter is magnetogenetic technology.

The aim of Robinson's team is to provide patients who are blind some degree of vision restoration. The goal of MOANA researchers is to provide patients with a sense of vision even if their eyes are no longer functional by stimulating visual-related areas of the brain. 

The long-term objective of this research, according to Robinson, is to develop techniques for therapeutically engaging particular brain regions in humans without ever requiring surgery. "We most likely need to achieve a response down to a few hundredths of a second in order to match the brain's innate precision. So there is still work to be done."

Journal reference:

Sebesta, C., et al. (2022) Subsecond multichannel magnetic control of select neural circuits in freely moving flies. Nature Materials.


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