Image courtesy of Protein
Want to turn people into mindless zombies? Try optogenetics.
Optogenetics is a fairly new branch of scientific study, wherein tiny fiber optics are used to deliver light to neural tissue, causing the neurons to fire (or not fire) at will.
The key concept here is that the light be delivered to a fully- mobile animal with the kind of temporal precision needed to keep pace with a functioning, intact biological system. This means control down to the millisecond, both for input and for output — in other words, sending commands and reading the effects on the animal in question, as fast as they can think.
The possibility of using light for selectively and precisely controlling neural activity was first put forward by Francis Crick in 1999, but it wasn’t until a year or two later that scientists were using lasers to turn neurons on and off. Then in 2002, Boris Zemelman and Gero Miesenböck had genetically modified neurons in order to sensitize them further to light. By 2005, scientists were developing “organic photoswitches” — compounds that could interact with genetically-introduced ion channels, while at the same time, other groups were learning to change the behavior of fruit flies via genetically-targeted photostimulation.
In plain English, what this means is that, using a viral or microbial agent that affects the tissue genetically, they make the neurons photosensitive. And not just temporarily: this is genetic tinkering at the basic level. Then, once the neurons are all aware, they drill a hole in the animal’s skull and insert fiberoptics (more or less-deeply, depending on what part of the brain they are trying to reach) to the specific site being studied. The animals are then hooked up to a monitoring device, and their behavior studied.
Image thanks to Robyn’s rather gleeful blog post
The reasoning behind this is that there are things that can be learned from studying the firing of an animal’s neurons — in real-time, as the animal moves freely — that can’t be learned from other methods, which take minutes or hours, or sometimes days, to get results. They are learning more about brains now than ever before, thanks to optogenetics.
To me, the glaring omission in all this is starting to hurt my eyes: they are learning how to change an animal’s behavior, its emotions, even its personality, and all anybody seems to be talking about is how great it is for research purposes. All this research is very clearly aimed at humans; there is much discussion of how this could help with Parkinson’s, or with autism, or with any number of behavioral disorders and diseases. But no one is questioning the ethics of using genetics to modify human beings. What are the implications? How will this be used in the future? Surely someone, somewhere has been looking at this and saying “Hmm, how interesting: this could be used to modify [the masses/the military/convicted criminals/our enemies].” Why aren’t we hearing about it? Why isn’t anyone questioning it?
As my daughter says, it’s like the Imperius Curse has become real, but no one’s talking about it.
The military, always on the lookout for things to enhance the efficiency and responsiveness of their troops, have already been experimenting with putting electrodes on people’s skulls to increase that elusive mental state known as “flow” – the feeling of effortless concentration that characterizes outstanding performance in an area of skill. Normally, flow comes from long practice — upwards of 10,000 hours — necessary to acquire a skill and become expert at it, doing it over and over until you can execute your skill automatically, without conscious consideration of what you’re doing. Ever notice how you’ve been driving for twenty minutes and don’t remember any of it? How about when you really get into the groove at work, and suddenly you realize hours have passed and you’ve been totally absorbed? Or what about boot camp, which is all about loading and unloading your gun, over and over, until you can do it in your sleep, or running/jumping/crawling in different situations, until you don’t even think about what you’re doing? The military makes their soldiers do those 10,000 hours of practice, so when they send troops into battle, they won’t even think — they’ll just do.
“Flow has been maddeningly difficult to pin down, let alone harness,” writes Sally Adee for New Scientist, earlier this year, “but a wealth of new technologies could soon allow us all to conjure up this state. The plan is to provide a short cut to virtuosity, slashing the amount of time it takes to master a new skill – be it tennis, playing the piano or marksmanship.”
Ms. Adee was in a lab in Carlsbad, California, trying out a new Defense Department project developed by the the Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She went there to have her brain hooked up to “what’s essentially a 9-volt battery.”
“[Michael] Weisend, who is working on a US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency programme to accelerate learning, has been using this form of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to cut the time it takes to train snipers. From the electrodes, a 2-milliamp current will run through the part of my brain associated with object recognition – an important skill when visually combing a scene for assailants.”
And lo! When strapped into the electrodes she was able to pick off video attackers one after another, calmly and efficiently, without the hysteria she’d experienced in the same chaotic situation shortly before.
Interestingly, the first study to show the ability to affect primate behavior through optogenetics came out as of July this year, in which “two monkeys were trained to purposefully move their eyes to a target on a screen when given a cue. But when the relevant optogenetically ready modified neurons were stimulated by light from optical fibers inserted into their brains, the neuronal circuit responsible was sped up, and the monkeys were able to complete this task faster.”
And the process of developing the technology should speed up even faster now that Kendall Research is developing a tiny skull-mounted device:
“[They have] developed several prototype devices that are small and light and powered wirelessly. The devices would allow mice and other small animals to move freely. The company is also developing systems to control experiments automatically and remotely, making it possible to use the technique for high-throughput studies.”
Hmm, so let’s see. If you take the studies on primates, and put them together with tiny, skull-mounted devices and the ability for remote control, along with advances in technology for brain interfaces, it begins to conjure up interesting visions of the future.
Oh, and did I mention they’ve found ways to use optogenetics to get mice to lose their memories? And to put light-sensitive muscle tissue into robots?
I’ll just leave you to imagine the rest.
Scientists Control Monkeys’ Brains with Light
Startup Makes Wireless Router for the Brain