Remote control of the brain is coming: how will we use it?

The latest advances in genetics and neuroscience suggest that mind control may soon be a reality. But how will we use this power once we get it?

Image credit: Silver Blue/Flickr

Controlling the minds of others from a distance has long been a favourite science fiction theme – but recent advances in genetics and neuroscience suggest that we might soon have that power for real. Just over a decade ago, the bioengineer Karl Deisseroth and his colleagues at Stanford University published their paper on the optical control of the brain – now known as optogenetics – in which the firing pattern of neurons is controlled by light. To create the system, they retrofitted neurons in mouse brains with genes for a biomolecule called channelrhodopsin, found in algae. Channelrhodopsin uses energy from light to open pathways so that charged ions can flow into cells. The charged ions can alter the electrical activity of neurons, influencing the animal’s behaviour along the way.


Soon researchers were using implants to guide light to channelrhodopsin in specific neurons in the brains of those mice, eliciting behaviour on demand. At the University of California the team of Anatol Kreitzer worked with Deisseroth  to disrupt movement, mimicking Parkinson’s disease and even restoring normal movement in a Parkinsonian mouse. Deisseroth and his colleague Luis de Lecea later demonstrated that it was possible to wake up mice by activating a group of neurons in the brain that control arousal and sleep.

But optogenetics has been challenging. Since light does not easily penetrate dense fatty brain tissue, researchers must implant a fibre-optic cable to bring light into the brain. This limitation led to the development of another, less intrusive technique known as DREADD (designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs). In this case, a receptor normally activated by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine is modified to respond to a designer drug not normally found in the body. When the designer drug is delivered, neurons can be manipulated and behaviour changed over a number of hours. The major drawback here: the slow course of drug administration compared with the rapid changes in brain activity that occur during most tasks.

In the past couple of years, researchers have pioneered a newer technique using low-frequency radio waves or a magnetic field, both of which can penetrate the body without causing damage. The waves serve to heat iron oxide nanoparticles injected or genetically targeted to the body region of interest. In a process similar to optogenetics, the heated nanoparticles open an ion channel called TRPV (transient receptor potential vanilloid), allowing calcium ions into the cell. Depending on the location of the nanoparticles, the ions might accomplish any number of tasks – from releasing insulin to suppressing the gastric hormones involved in feelings of hunger.

It seems only a matter of time before we use similar technology to treat neurological and mental health problems originating in the brain. Toward this end, some researchers are working with gold nanoparticles, which, when exposed to special light, can generate enough heat to make a neuron fire without the need to alter its genes.   

More research is needed, but these systems are potentially more precise and less invasive than existing techniques for altering brain activity such as deep brain stimulation. With so much progress on a variety of fronts, some form of human mind control – and the treatments and benefits it confers – should be here before long. We just need to make sure that like other emerging technologies – artificial intelligence and robotics come to mind – they are used for good to improve lives.

Catriona Houston

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

What should schools teach? Now is the moment to ask.

The future of learning will be different, and now is the time to lay the groundwork.

What should schools teach? Now is the moment to ask. | Caroline ...
Future of Learning
  • The coronavirus pandemic has left many at an interesting crossroads in terms of mapping out the future of their respective fields and industries. For schools, that may mean a total shift not only in how educators teach, but what they teach.
  • One important strategy moving forward, thought leader Caroline Hill says, is to push back against the idea that getting ahead is more important than getting along. "The opportunity that education has in this moment to really push students and think about what is the right way to live, how do we do it and how do we do it in a way that doesn't hurt or rob the dignity of other people?"
  • Hill also argues that now is the time for bigger swings and for removing the barriers that limit education. The online space is boundary free and provides educators with new opportunities to connect with students around the world.

Keep reading Show less

Here are 3 things white people can do right now to help #BLM

Remaining silent is being complicit.

Demonstrators pause for a moment of silence during a protest over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis Police officer, in McCarren Park in the borough of Brooklyn on June 3, 2020 in New York City.

Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Protests around the world are demanding an end to police discrimination and violence against black citizens in America.
  • Author and activist Dax-Devlon Ross offers advice on how white people can help during this moment.
  • Ross's suggestions include thinking and voting locally, supporting black-owned businesses, and practicing self-reflection.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…