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Essential Science: Developing a smartphone-controlled brain

Posted Aug 12, 2019 by Tim Sandle
Scientists have fitted a wireless device to the brains of mice and can control the brain neurons via smartphone. It may have an ominous, dystopian sci-fi feel to it but there is a serious side too, with potential for healthcare.
A man using a smartphone
A man using a smartphone
gailjadehamilton (CC BY-ND 2.0)
The research has been conducted by a collaborative team based in Korea (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) and the U.S. (University of Colorado Boulder) and it takes the form of a small, flexible, wireless device. By using a smartphone as a remote control, the scientists are able to influence the neurons and neural circuits within the mouse brain.
While the idea may seem a little creepy, the objective of the study is to further understand and to pioneer treatments for neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. In addition, the study may lead to insights in relation to depression, pain management and assist with strategies for addressing drug addiction.
New brain controller
The device includes an ultrathin probe equipped with light emitting diodes (LEDs), microfluidic channels, and replaceable drug cartridges. that can be easily swapped out. By implanting the device in key locations, the scientists hope to be able to target and influence specific neurons. This can either be through drug treatment (via the microfluidic channels) or by using light treatment over prolonged periods of time (as with the LEDs).
The light treatment falls within the field on optogenetics. This concerns the use of light to control cells in living tissue, typically neurons, that have been genetically modified to express light-sensitive ion channels.
Speaking with Laboratory Roots, lead researcher Raza Qazi states: “The wireless device enables chronic chemical and optical neuromodulation that has never been achieved before.”
PET scans showing the differances between a normal older adult s brain and the brain of an older adu...
PET scans showing the differances between a normal older adult's brain and the brain of an older adult afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. — On photo (left to right): PET scan of normal brain, PET scan of Alzheimer’s disease brain.
National Institutes of Health
Innovative technology
By being flexible, the device represents a new stage in this form of neuroscience technology. Previous attempts to influence neurons have used rigid metal tubes and optical fibers (both aimed at drug delivery or to enable light treatment). However, these forms of implants cannot be used over a prolonged period of time.
A further innovation is the control element. The combination of WiFi and the ability of a medical technologist to control the device through the simplicity of a smartphone, enables studies to take place in any location.
Next steps
To now, the device has been tested out as a proof-of-concept study in mice. The aim is to develop the device for use in humans, overcoming the existing limitations of conventional drug delivery and optogenetics.
This would involve the “fabrication and operation of permanent ‘cyborg-like’ brain-enhancement devices for maintaining healthy neural function or even boosting neural aptitude.” Creating a powerful tool for research and treatment of brain-related conditions.
Research paper
The research is published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering. The paper is titled “Wireless optofluidic brain probes for chronic neuropharmacology and photostimulation.”
Essential Science
In nuclear physics  nuclear fusion is a reaction in which two or more atomic nuclei come close enoug...
In nuclear physics, nuclear fusion is a reaction in which two or more atomic nuclei come close enough to form one or more different atomic nuclei and subatomic particles (neutrons and/or protons). The difference in mass between the products and reactants is manifested as the release of large amounts of energy.
Kjerish (CC BY-SA 4.0)
This article is part of Digital Journal's regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week we learned about a large cloud of radioactive material that hovered over most of Europe for a few days, and reviewed research that pinpointed its probable origin.
The week before we learned how neuroscience, in the form of special 'mapping' brain cells, is helping to drive improvements with the navigation systems of autonomous cars.