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Subject Flipping a Switch Inside the Head
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Original Message Flipping a Switch Inside the Head
With new technology, scientists are able to exert wireless control over brain cells of mice with just the push of a button. The first thing they did was make the mice hungry.

By W. Wayt Gibbs
APRIL 1, 2017

READY YOUR TINFOIL HATS—mind control is not as far-fetched an idea as it may seem. In Jeffrey M. Friedman’s laboratory, it happens all the time, though the subjects are mice, not people.

Friedman and his colleagues have demonstrated a radio-operated remote control for the appetite and glucose metabolism of mice—a sophisticated technique to wirelessly alter neurons in the animals’ brains. At the flick of a switch, they are able to make mice hungry—or suppress their appetite—while the mice go about their lives normally. It’s a tool they are using to unravel the neurological basis of eating, and it is likely to have applications for studies of other hard-wired behaviors.

Friedman, Marilyn M. Simpson Professor, has been working on the technique for several years with Sarah Stanley, a former postdoc in his lab who now is assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and collaborators at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Aware of the limitations of existing methods for triggering brain cells in living animals, the group set out to invent a new way. An ideal approach, they reasoned, would be as noninvasive and non-damaging as possible. And it should work quickly and repeatedly.

Although there are other ways to deliver signals to neurons, each has its limitations. In deep-brain stimulation, for example, scientists thread a wire through the brain to place an electrode next to the target cells. But the implant can damage nearby cells and tissues in ways that interfere with normal behavior. Optogenetics, which works similarly but uses fiber optics and a pulse of light rather than electricity, has the same issue. A third strategy—using drugs to activate genetically modified cells bred into mice—is less invasive, but drugs are slow to take effect and wear off.

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