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?

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.

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Kosovo land swap could end conflict - or restart war

Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it wasn't: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Serbians are historically very attached to it. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that recognise the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it actually has a lot of international support for that position (2).

The irony is that on the longer term, both Kosovo and Serbia want the same thing: EU membership. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued, between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics and not a few locals warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovar independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

In principle, countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging, but land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the Meuse river (3). But those bits of land were tiny, and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders carry a lot more weight in the Balkans.

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