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