Sure, plenty of the things we post here on NG seem like the stuff of science fiction, but this particular bit of news sounds like it was taken straight out of a 1950’s alien invasion flick. A few weeks ago, Harvard researchers successfully used lasers to hijack the mind of a roundworm and control its behavior — news that we’re sure evil geniuses everywhere are thrilled to hear. After all, where would any card-carrying intergalactic supervillain be without his trusty mind-control ray? However, despite successfully controlling the behavior of a worm, we’re still a few years away from having a full-fledged mind control ray you can use on your neighbor. But hey, you’ve got to walk before you can run, right?
So how exactly did they pull this off? Well, basically, they fired extremely precise lasers at the worm’s brain, which then activated specific neurons that affected the worm’s movement. Although that might sound relatively simple when stated so plainly, the feat required researchers to overcome some daunting technological challenges. Before they could begin, they first had to map out the entire nervous system of a tiny transparent worm known as Caenorhabditis elegans. Luckily, these little guys only have around 300 neurons in their heads, so figuring out what function each one performs is far easier than performing the same experiment on, say, a goat. After the scientists had mapped out C. elegans’ neural network, they had to genetically engineer a group of them to make their neurons sensitive to ultraviolet light. Without this modification, the team wouldn’t have been able to stimulate the worm’s brain with laser pulses.
The crazy thing is that genetically modifying a microscopic roundworm wasn’t even the hardest part. In order to activate one neuron at a time, the team needed to develop an extremely accurate targeting system capable of tracking an individual worm as it squirmed around the petri dish. Achieving this required the use of custom built hardware and software, but once the system was operational the researchers could not only control the worm’s movement, but its senses as well. In addition to dictating which direction it moved, the team could also trick the worm’s brain into believing there was food nearby, which caused the animal to make a beeline for the imaginary meal.
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