TIME the brain

Noninvasive Brain Control Is Real — and That’s Good

Give in, give in, give in to the light...
tunart; Getty Images Give in, give in, give in to the light...

A diabolical-sounding breakthrough may actually be able to treat a range of disabling diseases

You might think you don’t want anyone controlling your brain. You might think that anyone who did want to control your brain was behaving, you know, invasively. But you’d be wrong — and that’s actually very good news.

Most of the reactions in your brain are mediated either electrically or neurochemically — or, really, a combination of the two. But given the right manipulation, light can do it too.

Nature is awash in light-sensitive proteins known as opsins, which microbes and other simple organisms use to detect different levels and wavelengths of light in their environment and react to them. For more than a decade, scientists have been experimenting with a technique known as optogenetics, which involves introducing opsins into the brain and then using light to switch certain neurons on and off, effectively controlling the behavior of a local region of the brain. (In one dramatic study last year, researchers found they could use the technique to implant false memories in mice, leading them to think they had experienced an electrical shock in a particular part of their cage, which they then avoided.)

The problem was that stimulating the opsins so that they would switch the neurons on and off as desired required threading a fiber-optic cable into the brain and sending pulses of light through it — something even a mouse would rather not sit still for. If there was ever going to be a way to use optogenetics in humans, a more benign method had to be developed.

Enter Ed Boyden, associate professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. Boyden knew that one of the limitations of most opsins is that they respond only to green or blue wavelengths, which are pretty much stopped cold by solid objects like the bone and soft tissue that makes up the head. But red light can penetrate scalp and skull — at least a little bit. Boyden’s team thus went scouring through light-sensitive bacteria and found two that produce red-sensitive opsins. Those proteins, however, produce only a very weak photocurrent — not nearly enough to affect brain function.

So Boyden’s team — especially grad student Amy Chuong — began tinkering with the proteins, genetically engineering mutants that produced a bigger kick when hit with red light. When these engineered opsins were introduced into the brains of laboratory mice, they were able to shut down or turn on local neural activity with nothing more than a well-aimed beam of red light on the skull.

Fantastic — but why exactly would a human being want to go within 10 feet of the technology? A lot of reasons. Epilepsy, for example, is little more than an out-of-control electrical storm in the brain, and optogenetics might offer a quick and painless way to regulate it. Other neurological disorders could similarly be treated in much the way researchers are using transcranial magnetic stimulation as a means to control Parkinson’s disease, depression, migraine headaches and other conditions. The MIT team is also working with investigators at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research in Switzerland to use the same protein to resensitize cone cells in the retina. If the technique proves successful in mice, in could be used to treat retinitis pigmentosa, which causes blindness by destroying the cones.

So, as with so many other scary-sounding advances in medical history, brain control is very bad — but only until it’s very good.

TIME Research

Researchers Hope ‘Super Bananas’ Will Combat Vitamin A Deficiency

If approved for cultivation, the genetically engineered fruit could revolutionize child health in much of the developing world

Genetically engineered bananas, packed with micronutrients, are to undergo their first human trial in the United States to test their ability to battle rampant vitamin A deficiency — a large cause of infant death and blindness throughout low-income communities around the world.

“The consequences of vitamin A deficiency are dire with 650,000 to 700,000 children worldwide dying … each year and at least another 300,000 going blind,” the project leader, Professor James Dale from Australia’s Queensland University of Technology, told AFP.

The six-week trial backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation expects to have results by the end of the year and plans to have the bananas growing in Uganda by 2020.

Standard Ugandan bananas provide sustenance to East Africa but have low levels of nutrients such as iron and vitamin A. “Good science can make a massive difference here by enriching staple crops such as Ugandan bananas with pro-vitamin A and providing poor and subsistence-farming populations with nutritionally rewarding food,” said Dale.

Researchers infused the staple crop in Uganda with alpha- and beta-carotene — which the body turns into vitamin A — as an easy solution to the problem that plagues the country, but the same modification could be used on different crops as well. If the bananas are approved for growth in Uganda, other staple crops in Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya could also be engineered with micronutrients.

“In West Africa farmers grow plantain bananas and the same technology could easily be transferred to that variety as well,” Dale said.

[AFP]

TIME Out There

Imagining the Future Animal

Vincent Fournier worked with animal geneticists to understand how creatures adapt to a changing world. His new work imagines what it would be like if rabbits were super intelligent, ibises had silicon claws and orchids tasted like bananas.

Vincent Fournier is a photographer of the future—both the one that’s actually happened, and the science-fiction future that we hoped would come to be. In his earlier work, the French artist plucked robots out of laboratories and staged portraits of artificial life forms like Sony’s Asimo going about their business in the human world, drinking from a water fountain or playing basketball. In his sprawling “Space Project,” Fournier—who used to visit the Paris museum of science as a child—traveled to world’s centers of space exploration, places like the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Russia and NASA’s venerable Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Fournier’s photographs make the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah look like the forbidding alien landscape it was meant to stand in for, while his shots of technicians in bubble-helmeted space suits are mined from the same visual vein as Stanley Kubricks’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. These are glimpses of Tomorrowland, the space age that never quite took off. Even his work on Brasilia—the custom-built capital of Brazil, that perpetual “country of the future”—show an obsession with classic visions of tomorrow, with humankind’s effort to bring the universe to heel. “I love machines, the ones that fly, speak, count or observe,” Fournier has written. “I’m fascinated by the magical aspect of science, which seems to reduce the complexity of the world to a few mathematical formulae.”

In his new work, Fournier is still looking to the future—to the hard lines of the man-made—but he’s moved to things that are living. Or at least, things that may live. In his “Engineered Species” project, part of his recently released book Past Forward, Fournier explores how life itself tinkers with its own design, changing DNA to make species better, faster and stronger. Fournier took pictures of taxidermy specimens—stuffed and pinned animals—and brought them to animal geneticists to find how these species were evolving in real time as the environment, thanks largely to human action, keeps changing.

The result are new engineered species like a global warming-tolerant pangolin, a rodent-like Asian mammal with a tougher keratin skin that enables it to maintain a constant body temperature, even in a hotter climate. An ibis—a long-legged wading bird—evolves longer, stronger claws that help make it more resistant to both drought and frost. A rabbit—one that stares at the viewer with expressive blue eyes—is engineered for higher intelligence thanks to neural stem cell treatment.

None of these species are real yet, and like Fournier’s earlier space-age work, they may turn out to be a vision of a future that does not come to pass. But I doubt it. We’re already on our way to engineering new life forms, to tinkering with the DNA of the species around us—and eventually ours as well. We may have no other choice—the environment is changing more rapidly than wildlife can adapt to, and the result is a wave of extinction happening faster than any this planet has witnessed for millions of years. For nature to survive, it may have to become artificial—though even Fournier, who says he loves machines, has his doubts about our ability to control these metamorphoses. “The universe is not as well ordered as our machines,” he writes. “It acts in an irrational, chaotic, violent and mysterious way, and even though there are computers that can design our forests, the control remains artificial.” Our engineering, after all, can exceed our wisdom.

Vincent Fournier’s limited edition monograph Past Forward was recently released by IDEA BOOKS.

Additionally, Fournier’s photographic work will be on display as part of the Les Rencontres d’Arles photography festival in France through September.

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