A group of scientists from Columbia University manipulated the visual cortex of a mouse’s brain to control its visual system. This is the first time that the visual behavior of an animal is controlled by manipulating its neurons.
The researchers specifically manipulated neuronal groups using new optical and analytical tools. They first identified cortical sets that performed certain visual tasks in mice by injecting viruses into their brains that enabled them to analyze neuronal activity.
They then trained rodents to associate a certain visual stimulus to water and in this way every time a certain image appeared, the mice ingested water. Then, through high-resolution optogenetics, they identified the neurons involved in this process of vision and reaction with cellular level precision, which allowed them to be able to reactivate these neurons at will using a two-photon laser.
When you reactivated those precise neurons, the mice activated themselves to drink water even though they had not seen the image that was the input. They therefore basically took control of the visual system of the mice, almost creating an image in their brain to which they responded by ingesting the water.
“It’s the most exciting work in my lab for decades,” says Rafael Yuste, a professor of biological sciences at Columbia and senior author of the study.
Naturally the thought goes immediately to possible applications of such a method on human beings: although the researchers are still far from this, Luis Carrillo-Reid, another author of the study, admits that this research could prove useful for possible attempts at precise reprogramming of the brain, something that would make a huge leap forward for all neuroscience.