From the department of "I hope this never happens to me," scientists have used a laser to manipulate the behavior of a worm. First, a research team from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute genetically engineered a tiny, transparent worm called Caenorhabditis elegans to have neurons that give off fluorescent light. This allowed the neurons to be tracked during experiments. The scientists also engineered the neurons to be sensitive to light, which made it possible to activate them with pulses of laser light. Next, they built a movable table for the worm to crawl on, keeping it aligned beneath a camera and laser.

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They used the laser to activate a single neuron at a time. By doing so, they were able to control a worm's behavior and its senses. In tests, which the researchers published in the journal Nature, the laser made the worm turn left or right and move through a loop. The laser also tricked the worm brain into thinking food was nearby. The worm, in turn, wiggled toward what it thought was a meal.

The research, which on the surface seems like a bit of a circus, actually is important because it shows scientists which neurons are responsible for what.

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"If we can understand simple nervous systems to the point of completely controlling them, then it may be a possibility that we can gain a comprehensive understanding of more complex systems," said Sharad Ramanathan, an Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and of Applied Physics. "This gives us a framework to think about neural circuits, how to manipulate them, which circuit to manipulate and what activity patterns to produce in them."

via Medical Xpress

Credit: NIH