Optogenetics – the science of controlling the brain with the use of light – has just received a boost from a Stanford research team who invented the first fully internal implanted device that’s wirelessly-powered.
The importance of the device is monumental, as it expands the way optogenetics can be used during research. More than anything, the implant will be aiding scientists in their endeavor of carrying out experiments involving mice, whether they are in enclosed spaces or interacting with other animals.
Published in the journal Nature Methods, the research conducted by Assist Prof Ada Poon, who teaches electrical engineering at Stanford, has improved conditions for the experiments done on mice. Its small size allows the mouse to move around freely, without the usual restrictions offered by other alternatives.
Because the device can be reconfigured for different uses, Poon made the design of the power source available for the public. She is confident that other labs will find new applications that will assist them in their work.
Conventional optogenetics required that the mouse’s head be fitted with a fiber optic cable that would deliver light and control the brain. Because of the limitative headgear, mice could only be observed in an open cage, as they weren’t able to navigate in enclosed spaces.
Moreover, the results of the experiments were often subject to alteration because the mice were often stressed beforehand by scientists attaching the cable to their heads. Restrictions like these hindered the advancement of optogenetics.
Even though this method allowed researchers to investigate medical issues – such as relieving tremors in Parkinson’s disease – they couldn’t incorporate other factors in their studies, like depression or anxiety involved in mazes because of the challenges presented by a tethered mouse.
Fascinated by the creation of miniature, implantable, wirelessly powered devices, Poon had collaborated with graduate student Kate Montgomery, professor of bioengineering and of mechanical engineering, convinced they could provide an advanced tool for neuroscience.
Before people go around thinking they could control other people’s minds, an important point must be done from clarifying that optogenetics is only successful on carefully prepared nerves that now contain proteins that respond to light.
Poon explains that developing the miniature device that delivers light was not the hard part. Figuring out a viable way to power it over a large area with power efficiency in mind was.
Instead of tackling the problem by creating yet another bulky device that attaches to the mice’s skull, Poon found a way to “use the mouse’s own body to transfer radio frequency energy that was just the right wavelength to resonate in a mouse.”
Experiments that will better our understanding of mental health disorders have suddenly become that much easier, all thanks to the tiny device and the innovative powering mechanism.
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