Brain implant for remote control of social interaction

implante cerebral

It is possible to control specific areas of the brain using light to target genetically modified neurons, a technique called optogenetics that can treat everything from paralysis to blindness.

Now, using the same technique, a group of Northwestern University scientists has managed to program social interactions between mice for the first time, something that can help better understand how hierarchies and relationships are formed into complex groups of individuals.

Optogenetic is based on the idea that some cells contain proteins that make them more sensitive to light than others, and by inserting genes that confer these characteristics into new cells, their behavior can be altered when exposed to light. Northwestern University scientists were able to do this in genetically modified mice by equipping them with altered neurons with a light-sensitive algae gene, with the help of a newly developed brain implant.

The implant is half a millimeter thick and placed under the skin on the skull's outer surface. Then a thin and flexible probe is put equipped with LED down into the brain so that researchers can operate the light in real-time through near-field wireless communication from a nearby computer.

Futuristic brain probe allows for wireless control of neurons | National  Institutes of Health (NIH)

Being a wireless technology, it allows mice to move freely while being analyzed.

Thus the first optogenetic study of social interactions between groups of animals is born. They managed to activate neurons in the brain region associated with higher-order executive function. This led to an increase in the frequency and duration of social interactions between mice, which could be reversed by turning off stimulation. Scientists could also arbitrarily select a pair of mice for further interaction.

The technique is not currently approved for use in humans but will aid in research and studying interactions between complex groups and how the brain works when communicating with other people.

We now have the technology to investigate how ties between individuals in these groups are formed and broken and to examine how social hierarchies emerge from these interactions.

The research was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

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