Remote control of the brain is coming: how will we use it?

Catriona Houston

Catriona Houston

is a writer, and holds a PhD in the modulation of inhibitory synaptic transmission. She has worked as a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at the Imperial College, London.

Brought to you by curio.io, an Aeon partner

600 words

Edited by Pam Weintraub

Republish
Silver Blue/Flickr
Silver Blue/Flickr

Catriona Houston

Catriona Houston

is a writer, and holds a PhD in the modulation of inhibitory synaptic transmission. She has worked as a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at the Imperial College, London.

Brought to you by curio.io, an Aeon partner

600 words

Edited by Pam Weintraub

Republish
Silver Blue/Flickr
Silver Blue/Flickr

Catriona Houston

is a writer, and holds a PhD in the modulation of inhibitory synaptic transmission. She has worked as a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at the Imperial College, London.

Brought to you by curio.io, an Aeon partner

600 words

Edited by Pam Weintraub

Republish

Controlling the minds of others from a distance has long been a favourite science fiction theme – but recent advances in genetics and neuroscience suggest that we might soon have that power for real. Just over a decade ago, the bioengineer Karl Deisseroth and his colleagues at Stanford University published their paper on the optical control of the brain – now known as optogenetics – in which the firing pattern of neurons is controlled by light. To create the system, they retrofitted neurons in mouse brains with genes for a biomolecule called channelrhodopsin, found in algae. Channelrhodopsin uses energy from light to open pathways so that charged ions can flow into cells. The charged ions can alter the electrical activity of neurons, influencing the animal’s behaviour along the way.

Soon researchers were using implants to guide light to channelrhodopsin in specific neurons in the brains of those mice, eliciting behaviour on demand. At the University of California the team of Anatol Kreitzer worked with Deisseroth  to disrupt movement, mimicking Parkinson’s disease and even restoring normal movement in a Parkinsonian mouse. Deisseroth and his colleague Luis de Lecea later demonstrated that it was possible to wake up mice by activating a group of neurons in the brain that control arousal and sleep.

But optogenetics has been challenging. Since light does not easily penetrate dense fatty brain tissue, researchers must implant a fibre-optic cable to bring light into the brain. This limitation led to the development of another, less intrusive technique known as DREADD (designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs). In this case, a receptor normally activated by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine is modified to respond to a designer drug not normally found in the body. When the designer drug is delivered, neurons can be manipulated and behaviour changed over a number of hours. The major drawback here: the slow course of drug administration compared with the rapid changes in brain activity that occur during most tasks.

In the past couple of years, researchers have pioneered a newer technique using low-frequency radio waves or a magnetic field, both of which can penetrate the body without causing damage. The waves serve to heat iron oxide nanoparticles injected or genetically targeted to the body region of interest. In a process similar to optogenetics, the heated nanoparticles open an ion channel called TRPV (transient receptor potential vanilloid), allowing calcium ions into the cell. Depending on the location of the nanoparticles, the ions might accomplish any number of tasks – from releasing insulin to suppressing the gastric hormones involved in feelings of hunger.

It seems only a matter of time before we use similar technology to treat neurological and mental health problems originating in the brain. Toward this end, some researchers are working with gold nanoparticles, which, when exposed to special light, can generate enough heat to make a neuron fire without the need to alter its genes.   

More research is needed, but these systems are potentially more precise and less invasive than existing techniques for altering brain activity such as deep brain stimulation. With so much progress on a variety of fronts, some form of human mind control – and the treatments and benefits it confers – should be here before long. We just need to make sure that like other emerging technologies – artificial intelligence and robotics come to mind – they are used for good to improve lives.

Republish

Catriona Houston

is a writer, and holds a PhD in the modulation of inhibitory synaptic transmission. She has worked as a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at the Imperial College, London.

aeon.co
Get Aeon straight
to your inbox
Join our newsletter Sign up
Follow us on
Facebook
Like

‘Aeon is hands down my favourite publication to write for. Deadlines long enough to do the work justice, the best editorial input I’ve encountered and compensation which is respectful of writers’ time.’

Antonia Malchik, essayist and editor

‘Aeon is what readers and writers dream about. It is wide in scope, without ever being shallow. It offers stimulating issues, yet never seeking to be tantalising.

Publishing at its best. I love it.’

Professor Luciano Floridi, University of Oxford

‘I believe it’s increasingly important to support accessible scholarship and aspirational ideas.

Thinking people can no longer afford to be alone.’

Christine T, USA, Friend of Aeon

‘Aeon is my favourite online magazine.

I have found no other place that so regularly provides interesting, clear and informative articles across academic disciplines on topics that matter.’

Dr Robert J. Hartman, University of Gothenburg

‘Aeon’s combination of intelligence, integrity and flair is vanishingly rare – and I am very grateful for it. It is becoming an indispensable presence in the digital world for those who believe that ideas matter.’

Tom Chatfield, writer and commentator on digital culture

Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge. Our mission is to create a sanctuary online for serious thinking.
But we can’t do it without you.

Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge and a cosmopolitan worldview.
But we can’t do it without you.

Essay/
Mood & Emotion
The myth of ‘mad’ genius

The Romantic stereotype that creativity is enhanced by a mood disorder is dangerous, and dissolves under careful scrutiny

Christa L Taylor

Essay/
Cognition & Intelligence
Gesture talks

Across vast cultural divides people can understand one another through gesture. Does that make it a universal language?

Kensy Cooperrider