Menus Subscribe Search
cyborg

(PHOTO: OCIACIA/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Our Cyborg Overlords May Arrive Sooner Than Expected

• August 12, 2013 • 9:40 AM

(PHOTO: OCIACIA/SHUTTERSTOCK)

A group of scientists recently created a genuine mouse cyborg. It’s only a matter of time until those same advances are applied to humans.

How do you make a cyborg?

High on the list of requirements would be “a technology that allows targeted, fast control of precisely defined events in biological systems.” This technology now exists, although not exactly as it was envisioned on television in the ’70s. Today, the Six Million Dollar Man’s bionic enhancements would involve optogenetics—a technology based on a mix of micron-scale electronics, designer viruses, and a set of light-activated proteins taken from aquatic microorganisms.

Optogenetics was invented in 2005 when a group of scientists at Stanford University showed that they could control rat neurons using a light-activated protein transplanted from green algae. The killer feature of this algal protein is that, when activated by light, it generates an electrical current. In green algae, this light-sensing protein converts light energy into an electrical current as part of the process of harvesting energy from sunlight; transplanted into neurons, that same protein induces an electrical current that will trigger those neurons to fire. In other words, by simply expressing one new protein in neurons, scientists can control brain functions using beams of light.

Using optogenetics, scientists have shown that they can manipulate both memory and behavior in mice, and there is no reason why the same approach wouldn’t work in human brains.

Scientists and physicians have long been interested in making very specific sets of neurons fire in response to a stimulus. In the past, the way to artificially stimulate neurons was to use electrodes that directly apply an electrical current, but electrodes are like a sledge hammer: difficult to aim precisely, they indiscriminately stimulate any neurons in their vicinity, regardless of whether those neurons belong to the same class. With optogenetics, researchers get around this problem by making only very specific groups of neurons sensitive to light. By stimulating those specific groups with light, researchers can study what role those neurons play in learning, memory, and behavior, and they can manipulate neural circuits that are malfunctioning in disease.

Right now scientists are primarily using optogenetics in the lab, in research aimed at answering basic questions about how the brain works, and to explore possible treatments for neurological diseases like stroke, Huntington’s disease, and some forms of blindness. The U.S. Defense Department’s pie-in-the-sky research agency, DARPA, has also invested in optogenetics research focused on healing traumatic brain injuries.

More recently, optogenetics has moved into territory previously occupied by science fiction. Using optogenetics, scientists have shown that they can manipulate both memory and behavior in mice, and there is no reason why the same approach wouldn’t work in human brains. In July, a group of scientists at MIT reported that they successfully implanted false memories in optogenetically modified mice. They did this by placing the mice in a box and using light to activate a group of neurons during a fear stimulus (the mice were getting their feet electrically shocked). Later, the same group of neurons was activated naturally, in a completely different context (a new box). The mice acted as if they remembered getting shocked in this new context, even though the actual foot shocks were administered somewhere else. The point of this study was not to make a murine version of Inception, but rather to understand how memory is evoked by environment, a crucial issue in both addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the most dramatic demonstration of the potential of optogenetics, a team of scientists at the University of Illinois, together with my Washington University colleagues, created genuine mouse cyborgs. They built a micron-scale electronic device that could seamlessly interact with optogenetically modified neurons in a mouse’s brain.

To create a cyborg mouse, the researchers used engineered viruses to deliver light-activated proteins to the mouse’s neurological reward circuitry, and then injected a miniaturized electronic control device into the mouse’s brain. This device contained a small LED to activate the light-sensitive neurons, as well as various instruments for monitoring the brain’s response. They hooked the control device up to a wireless transmitter, which was mounted on the mouse’s head. The result was a mouse that, as the researchers reported, could engage in “wireless, optical self-stimulation.”

Optogenetics clearly ranks with other recent game-changing biological technologies like fluorescent proteins, RNA-based gene silencing, and inducible stem cells. While there are still some technological hurdles to overcome before optogenetics can be widely used to modify human biology (not to mention ethical hurdles as well), this technology is developing extremely quickly, and unlike some other promised biotechnologies, optogenetics may be useful much sooner than we expect.

Michael White
Michael White is a systems biologist at the Department of Genetics and the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he studies how DNA encodes information for gene regulation. He co-founded the online science pub The Finch and Pea. Follow him on Twitter @genologos.

More From Michael White

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


Follow us


Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.