Commanding the Brain via Remote Control

September 2, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Remote control for a television
Photo credit: Chris Brown/Flickr/

Depression, epilepsy, and other neurological disorders may be treated by controlling the brain with a remote.

Scientists are imagining a future where, in the event of an epileptic seizure, a drug could instantaneously be administered in the brain, stabilizing neural activity. All of this would be done courtesy of a brain chip that can be wirelessly controlled with a remote.

Bringing these hopes to reality, neuroscientists at Washington University in St. Louis have created a brain device that can deliver drugs and light via remote control. The implant is thin, minimally invasive and allows for wireless brain control by remotely drugging and controlling neurons.

This was all made possible by a relatively new neuroscience approach called Optogenetics, which combines genetics and the physics of light. Optogenetics involves neurons that have been genetically modified to sense and respond to light, allowing neuroscientists to control and monitor the activities of neurons in living tissue. Specifically, the neurons respond to the light and/or drugs emitted from the brain implant, and the scientists have the option to control the entire process via wireless remote.

The implant is just one tenth the width of a human hair, but contains massive potential for the future of researching brain circuit activity. It carries up to four drugs and contains four microscale light-emitting diodes— semiconductor devices that typically allow the flow of current in one direction only. Researchers hope to increase the number of medicine chambers by designing the device similarly to the cartridge of a printer’s ink, allowing for drug delivery to specific brain cells or other parts of the body.

In order to minimize damage even when penetrated deep inside the brain, the implant was engineered with soft materials. Until now, scientists have had to pick one of two accident-prone surgical methods that could likely result in brain damage or flawed experimental conditions: injecting drugs through bulky metal tubes or delivering lights through fiber optic cables. With the invention of this new nano-manufactured implant, neuroscientists will no longer be restricted by such methods. They can study the brain circuit activity involved with a variety of disorders including stress, depression, addiction, and pain with minimal risk.

To test the capabilities of the device, neuroscientists inserted the implant in the brains of mice. By injecting drugs in special regions of the brain, the scientists were able to make the mice walk in circles via wireless remote control. Additionally, they were able to precisely map neural circuits by injecting a virus that uses genetic dyes to label cells. The scientists also successfully shined light onto cells that trigger the release of dopamine, rewarding the mice with happy feelings. When the mice came back for more, the researchers delivered a drug to put a halt on this dopamine effect, all via remote control.

Presently, this remote-controlled brain technology is restricted for lab animals. However, neuroscientists have high hopes for its implications among humans in the future. It has the potential to treat a number of neurological disorders, like depression, addiction, and epilepsy.

As one would expect to follow the news of a technological innovation with the power to control the brain, there are critics and people with questions about the ethics involved. Skeptics at Hacked wonder if the manufacturing of the implant could open the door for malicious neuro-hackers to drug and remotely control people. As the creators of the implant have expressed a thorough plan to manufacture it in support for an open, crowdsourcing approach to neuroscience, all we can do is hope it doesn’t get in the hands of any mad scientists!

To access the full research report published in Cell, click here.

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