No self-respecting mad scientist or alien despot would ever dream of conquering the galaxy without their trusty mind-controlling ray gun. Thanks to a group of Harvard researchers, this venerable addition to the science fiction armory may be one step closer to science fact. The team has successfully used a series of brief laser pulses to stimulate the neurons of the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, effectively taking control of its brain.
Now, to be fair, calling whatever is running C. elegans‘ brain is probably giving the collection of cells that points the flatworm in the direction of food kind of a lot of credit — after all, the microscopic worms are only sporting 300 or so neurons each, meaning that if you hit any of those with a laser, you are going to be disrupting some reasonably important function or another.
The researchers were only too happy to cause such disruptions, using short sharp shocks from a laser to steer the creature whichever way they chose and even tricking it into thinking there was food nearby, which, frankly, seems like kind of a dick move.
To make the worms capable of being controlled by laser light, researchers first had to engineer worms whose neurons were sensitive to ultraviolet light. Then, they had to improve their targeting system to ensure they were only hitting one neuron at a time — no mean feat when you’re shooting a laser at a moving target about a millimeter long. The payoff, though, is that once you’ve got the technique down, the universally admired goal of using lasers to play a game of Snake with a small worm in a petri dish is right around the corner
Tricking C. elegans is a major feat for researchers, even if lying to a tiny worm with a handful of brain cells makes playing “Got your nose” with your nephew look like an intellectually thrilling round of Socratic dialogue. The study, published today in the journal Nature, is a valuable proof of principle, demonstrating that the technique could one day be effective for manipulating neurons and even behavior in more complex animals. So take heed, aspiring world conquerors: For just several billion dollars and decades of R&D, the gadget you’ve always wanted in order to force your enemies to bend the knee in fealty to you may be closer at hand than you think.
Or, you know, we could continue using devices like this to build more accurate, detailed maps of connections between neurons and help us hone our understanding of connections in the brain. Both are good options.
(via Medical Xpress)
- Mind controlling bugs is getting weirdly passe at this point
- Think of the programmable cat ears we can develop with this technology!
- And the thought-powered quadcopters!