Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Using precisely-targeted lasers, researchers manipulate neurons in worms' brains and take control of their behavior

Date:
September 24, 2012
Source:
Harvard University
Summary:
In the quest to understand how the brain turns sensory input into behavior, Harvard scientists have crossed a major threshold. Using precisely-targeted lasers, researchers have been able to take over an animal's brain, instruct it to turn in any direction they choose, and even to implant false sensory information, fooling the animal into thinking food was nearby.

Caenorhabditis elegans, adult hermaphrodite.
Credit: By Bob Goldstein, UNC Chapel Hill http://bio.unc.edu/people/faculty/goldstein/ (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In the quest to understand how the brain turns sensory input into behavior, Harvard scientists have crossed a major threshold. Using precisely-targeted lasers, researchers have been able to take over an animal's brain, instruct it to turn in any direction they choose, and even to implant false sensory information, fooling the animal into thinking food was nearby.

As described in a September 23 paper published in Nature, a team made up of Sharad Ramanathan, an Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and of Applied Physics, Askin Kocabas, a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Molecular and Cellular Biology, Ching-Han Shen, a Research Assistant in Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Zengcai V. Guo, from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute were able to take control of Caenorhabditis elegans -- tiny, transparent worms -- by manipulating neurons in the worms' "brain."

The work, Ramanathan said, is important because, by taking control of complex behaviors in a relatively simple animal -- C. elegans have just 302 neurons -we can understand how its nervous system functions..

"If we can understand simple nervous systems to the point of completely controlling them, then it may be a possibility that we can gain a comprehensive understanding of more complex systems," Ramanathan said. "This gives us a framework to think about neural circuits, how to manipulate them, which circuit to manipulate and what activity patterns to produce in them ."

"Extremely important work in the literature has focused on ablating neurons, or studying mutants that affect neuronal function and mapping out the connectivity of the entire nervous system. " he added. "Most of these approaches have discovered neurons necessary for specific behavior by destroying them. The question we were trying to answer was: Instead of breaking the system to understand it, can we essentially hijack the key neurons that are sufficient to control behavior and use these neurons to force the animal to do what we want?"

Before Ramanathan and his team could begin to answer that question, however, they needed to overcome a number of technical challenges.

Using genetic tools, researchers engineered worms whose neurons gave off fluorescent light, allowing them to be tracked during experiments. Researchers also altered genes in the worms which made neurons sensitive to light, meaning they could be activated with pulses of laser light.

The largest challenges, though, came in developing the hardware necessary to track the worms and target the correct neuron in a fraction of a second.

"The goal is to activate only one neuron," he explained. "That's challenging because the animal is moving, and the neurons are densely packed near its head, so the challenge is to acquire an image of the animal, process that image, identify the neuron, track the animal, position your laser and shoot the particularly neuron -- and do it all in 20 milliseconds, or about 50 times a second. The engineering challenges involved seemed insurmountable when we started. But Askin Kocabas found ways to overcome these challenges"

The system researchers eventually developed uses a movable table to keep the crawling worm centered beneath a camera and laser. They also custom-built computer hardware and software, Ramanathan said, to ensure the system works at the split-second speeds they need.

The end result, he said, was a system capable of not only controlling the worms' behavior, but their senses as well. In one test described in the paper, researchers were able to use the system to trick a worm's brain into believing food was nearby, causing it to make a beeline toward the imaginary meal.

Going forward, Ramanathan and his team plan to explore what other behaviors the system can control in C. elegans. Other efforts include designing new cameras and computer hardware with the goal of speeding up the system from 20 milliseconds to one. The increased speed would allow them to test the system in more complex animals, like zebrafish.

"By manipulating the neural system of this animal, we can make it turn left, we can make it turn right, we can make it go in a loop, we can make it think there is food nearby," Ramanathan said. "We want to understand the brain of this animal, which has only a few hundred neurons, completely and essentially turn it into a video game, where we can control all of its behaviors."

Funding for the research was provided by the Human Frontier Science Program, the NIH Pioneer Award and the National Science Foundation.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Harvard University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Askin Kocabas, Ching-Han Shen, Zengcai V. Guo, Sharad Ramanathan. Controlling interneuron activity in Caenorhabditis elegans to evoke chemotactic behaviour. Nature, 2012; DOI: 10.1038/nature11431

Cite This Page:

Harvard University. "Using precisely-targeted lasers, researchers manipulate neurons in worms' brains and take control of their behavior." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 September 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/09/120924102658.htm>.
Harvard University. (2012, September 24). Using precisely-targeted lasers, researchers manipulate neurons in worms' brains and take control of their behavior. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 25, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/09/120924102658.htm
Harvard University. "Using precisely-targeted lasers, researchers manipulate neurons in worms' brains and take control of their behavior." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/09/120924102658.htm (accessed July 25, 2014).

Share This




More Plants & Animals News

Friday, July 25, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Boy Attacked by Shark in Florida

Boy Attacked by Shark in Florida

Reuters - US Online Video (July 24, 2014) An 8-year-old boy is bitten in the leg by a shark while vacationing at a Florida beach. Linda So reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Goma Cheese Brings Whiff of New Hope to DRC

Goma Cheese Brings Whiff of New Hope to DRC

Reuters - Business Video Online (July 24, 2014) The eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, mainly known for conflict and instability, is an unlikely place for the production of fine cheese. But a farm in the village of Masisi, in North Kivu is slowly transforming perceptions of the area. Known simply as Goma cheese, the Congolese version of Dutch gouda has gained popularity through out the region. Ciara Sutton reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Tyrannosaur Pack-Hunting Theory Aided By New Footprints

Tyrannosaur Pack-Hunting Theory Aided By New Footprints

Newsy (July 24, 2014) A new study claims a set of prehistoric T-Rex footprints supports the theory that the giant predators hunted in packs instead of alone. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Dogs Appear To Become Jealous Of Owners' Attention

Dogs Appear To Become Jealous Of Owners' Attention

Newsy (July 23, 2014) A U.C. San Diego researcher says jealousy isn't just a human trait, and dogs aren't the best at sharing the attention of humans with other dogs. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

    Health News

      Environment News

        Technology News



          Save/Print:
          Share:

          Free Subscriptions


          Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

          Get Social & Mobile


          Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

          Have Feedback?


          Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
          Mobile: iPhone Android Web
          Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
          Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
          Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins