Yale University School of Medicine researchers have found a way to exercise a little mind control over fruit flies, making the flies jump, beat their wings, and fly on command by triggering genetic "remote controls" that the scientists designed and installed in the insects' central nervous systems, according to a new report in the 8 April issue of the journal Cell.
Susana Lima and Gero Miesenböck hope that the remote control system will provide a valuable way to study how nerve-cell activity and connections are related to specific behaviors, from simple movements to more complex behaviors like learning, aggression, and even abstract thought.
The ability to control specific groups of neurons without implanting electrodes in the brain or using similarly invasive techniques "would represent a significant step in moving neuroscience from passive observation…to active and predictive manipulation of behavior," the Cell authors write.
Miesenböck also says "one could use this method to restore neural signals that have been lost" due to injury or disease, such as in spinal cord trauma, although he notes that the possibility is "far-fetched" at the moment.
The remote control is based on the idea that specific nerve cells could be equipped with molecular "receivers" that allow them to recognize an outside signal like a laser light pulse and translate that signal into the electrical signals characteristic of nerve-cell activity.
To accomplish this, Miesenböck and Lima devised a triggered molecular lock and key system, where the "lock" was the receiver genetically encoded to be expressed in the target neurons, the "key" was the molecule that would bind to and activate the lock, and laser light was the trigger that brought the key to the lock.
For the lock, the researchers used an ion channel, or a pore-forming protein that allows charged part