From Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the Manchurian Candidate to Robocop, the turning-people-into-puppets trope has carved out a prominent place for itself in science fiction, and for good reason. Alien possession seems a bit farfetched, but what about the subtler version of mind-control–conditioning, sleep teaching, and state-sanctioned hallucinogens–exercised by the government in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? Or Orwell’s “Newspeak”? We already know that we are, to some extent, not so different from Pavlov’s dogs–we’ve been trained to respond to ads, to other people, and to our own emotions and desires in particular and consistent ways. It’s not such a huge step from that to mind control. In fact, it’s already happening–with worms.
Worms have all the fun, don’t they? First, a trip to space. Next, having their neurons controlled by scientists.
By using lasers, scientists at Harvard can control worms’ neurons, forcing them to turn in a particular direction. They can also convince the worms that food is nearby by manipulating the worms’ sensory processing.
Neuroscientists believe that controlling behavior is crucial to understanding how the brain and nervous system work; this applies to worms, mice, monkeys, people, etc Even though these worms have only 1,031 cells and 302 neurons (with 5,000 connections), the ability to manipulate their neural circuits demonstrates a fundamental understanding of their functioning. Researchers hope to develop a complete computational model of the worm’s nervous system, which would be like having its mind computerized.
The process of understanding, manipulating, and modeling the nervous system of the worm paves the way for the understanding of more complex creatures. And, eventually, the ability to computerize or “upload” the minds of those creatures. But we’re getting ahead (aren’t puns fun?) of ourselves just a little bit.
For a while now, scientists have attempted to identify and isolate neurons that make possible certain behaviors in animals. In most previous experiments, scientists confirmed identification of the correct neuron by destroying it, thus rendering a specific behavior impossible. This recent experiment distinguishes itself by “hijacking” rather than destroying the neurons in order to see which neurons control which behaviors.
As you might imagine, controlling the “mind” of a worm presents some difficulties.
Before manipulating the neurons, scientists genetically engineered the worms’ neurons to emit fluorescent light, which makes it possible to track them. They also made the neurons light-sensitive and responsive to lasers.
Scientists also had to create worm-sized tracking hardware that could also instantaneously isolate a single neuron, which is no small feat (heh) given the size of these worms and the density of the neurons near their heads. The hardware allows scientists to receive an image of the worm and then identify the specific neuron they want to isolate. Then they can track the worm, target the specific neuron, and induce a response with a laser. All of this happens in about 20 milliseconds.
Check out this short video in which a worm responds to light and then changes directions.
The Harvard researchers will continue experimenting with the worms to see what other behaviors they can control. They will also continue updating their cameras and hardware in the hopes of being able to keep up with more advanced animals. Next up: fish. Just think of how successful your next angling trip could be! It’s kind of like shooting quail in a corral.
Among other things, we now have an explanation for the president’s performance in the first debate. We didn’t notice the laser at the time, but now it all makes sense.
Maybe Poltergeist was prescient in its admonition to not go into the light…