If you think remote control cars are fun, just wait until you hear this: Scientists have developed a way to remote control brain cells using magnets.
In a study published in the journal Advanced Science on Wednesday, a research team at the University College London found a way to attach tiny magnetic particles, or micromagnets, to brain cells called astrocytes. When a stronger magnet is waved overhead, the attached micromagnets essentially act as mechanical switches that encourage the star-shaped astrocytes to run specific functions, giving researchers some degree of control over the brain.
“Astrocytes are abundant in the brain and critical for keeping the brain healthy,” Yichao Yu, a neuroscientist at UCL and the study’s lead author, told The Daily Beast via email. “In recent years, their roles in regulating physiology, cognition, and behavior are also increasingly being recognized.”
When scientists typically engineer brain cells to do specific tasks in the lab, they genetically alter these cells to be more sensitive to light or to the presence of certain chemicals.
Yu and his team took a different approach in their experiment, forgoing genetic modification and instead exploiting the fact that astrocytes are intrinsically sensitive to mechanical stimuli. They injected micromagnets directly into the brains of lab rats. These micromagnets were guided by antibodies to land directly on the surface of astrocytes. When the researchers exposed the rats to a larger external magnet, the magnetic forces triggered a mechanical stimulation that revved up cell activity in the astrocytes.
As a result, the micromagnet-laden astrocytes essentially activate the part of the brain where they are located. For example, if switched on in the part of the brain that regulates blood pressure (called the brainstem), the result is an increase in blood pressure, which is exactly what Yu and his team observed.
Not even layers of tissue, bone and muscle can prevent the magnetic interactions from occurring—which means this is a completely non-invasive way to modify brain function.
“This is one of the strengths of our approach,” said Yu. “Biological tissue does not impede the magnetic field that we apply in any meaningful way. As a result, a magnetic field can reach deep tissue without trouble.” The external magnet could be something as well-known and widely used as an MRI machine.
Controlling astrocytes with micromagnets might open up a whole new way to study neurological ailments like epilepsy and stroke. More distantly, they might even show us a way to treat these kinds of problems directly.
Yu and his team want to take the non-invasive aspect of this approach to higher levels, and eliminate the need to even open up the skull in order to insert the micromagnets on brain cells.
While their full clinical potential has yet to be unlocked, these little magnets promise to attract quite the buzz in brain science in the coming years.