Science!: Flies, Juggling and Roaches

Lauren Admire | 19 Oct 2009 17:00

Scientists r in ur Brain, Messin with ur Neurons

Imagine you're in a room with only two tables. On each table is a kind of food. One table has a peanut butter jelly sandwich. The other table has a slice of pizza. When you approach the sandwich you consume it quickly. But when you move on to eat the pizza, you're flooded with bad memories involving pizza; memories which are horrific enough to prevent you from wanting to touch, see, smell, or taste another slice of pizza ever again.

The only thing is - these memories are from events that never actually happened. These memories were implanted by scientists - scientists hellbent on the destruction of all pizza and anything pizza related.

The technology for this sort of memory-manipulation is closer then you may realize. Gero Miesenböck and other researchers from the University of Oxford have located and manipulated the neurons responsible for memory creation in flies. By manipulating these neurons, false memories of bad experiences can be created, causing them to avoid certain odors completely.

In order to locate which neurons are responsible for the creation of bad memories, Miesenböck and his colleagues used a method called "optogenetics." In optogenetics, a simple flash of light will trigger the release of neuron-specific molecules. By targeting the correct molecules, their associated neurons can then be located and manipulated. In fruit flies, there are only 12 specific neurons that are responsible for "associative learning." Associative learning is basically any cue that you link to an outcome; such as the ring of a bell linked to a tasty treat for Pavlov's salivating pooches.

After identifying the neurons associated with this kind of learning, receptors were attached to them that could only be triggered by a specific chemical. The flies were then placed inside a cage, and presented with two odors. One odor was presented with an associated laser flash, the other odor was not. This laser flash activated the chemical that stimulated the receptors in the neurons. When the flies avoided the odor that had been paired with the flash, the researchers realized that the receptors in the neurons had successfully created a bad memory associated with the odor they avoided.

If I may backtrack a bit, the field of optogenetics is fascinating. It's currently the closest thing we have to total mind control. In a similar study, optogenetics were used to stimulate certain neurons in the brain of a mouse. When the flash of light was turned on, it felt compelled to run around in circles, for no apparent reason. When the light was turned off, the mouse returned to its normal mouse-y duties - being frickin' adorable and running mindlessly on exercise wheels.

Source: BBC

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