Scientists at Rice University in the United States have figured out how to hack the brains of fruit flies in order to make them remote-controlled. The team of neuroengineers were able to use magnetic signals to activate targeted neurons that control the body position and movement of the flies.
According to a study published in Nature Minerals, the team of researchers started by genetically engineering the flies so they expressed a certain heat-sensitive ion channel in some of their neurons. By injecting iron oxide nanoparticles into their brains to act as a heat trigger, the team was then able to use a magnetic field to heat up the particles and activate the neuron.
To demonstrate this, the researchers chose a specific neuron that caused the insects to spread their wings – a gesture they often use during mating. They found that it was able to activate neural circuits 50 times faster than any previous technology.
This breakthrough represents the “holy grail” of neurotechnologies as the science could be used in everything from treating diseases to developing brain-machine interfaces, the researchers said.
“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 Mr Jacob Robinson, who is an associate professor in electrical and computer engineering at Rice University.
“Remote control of select neural circuits with magnetic fields is somewhat of a holy grail for neurotechnologies. Our work takes an important step towards that goal because it increases the speed of remote magnetic control, making it closer to the natural speed of the brain,” he added, as per the Independent.
To achieve the feat, the research team brought together experts in genetic engineering, nanotechnology and electrical engineering. They said that their direct goal is to use this kind of technology to restore some sight to patients with vision impairments. They explained that by stimulating the visual cortex, they might be able to essentially bypass the eyes.