Controlling A Bug's Brain
May 26, 2014

Controlling A Bug’s Brain

I have always been a bit unnerved by the concept of mind control and mental manipulation in general. I remember one time, specifically, in college where I attended a hypnotist demonstration with a couple of friends. There was no way I was volunteering, but I settled myself to observe, sitting at the front far right corner of the stage – my poor eyesight makes such a thing needed. The hypnotist then put his volunteers into their trances and told them that the audience was all cute animals at a petting zoo. He then proceeded to send them out into the crowd. Guess who was closest to the stage…

Combined with my dislike of being touched, especially by people I do not know, I was – to put it gently – freaked out. I immediately left the auditorium, proceeded to the nearest bar, and had myself the strongest drink I could think to order.

Experiments with mental manipulation — either via hypnosis, electrical impulses, or various other means — have been performed for some time now, all with varying results. While, for reasons illustrated above, this has not been a great focus of mine in terms of interest, there has been a new breakthrough in the field of mind control.


In a joint effort between a United States lab and the Vienna University of Technology, researcher Andrew Straw and his team have overcome a previously impossible obstacle in the control of activity within the neurons of flies in flight. They have developed what they are calling FlyMAD, or “Fly Mind Altering Device,” which is a device that monitors flies in flight and allows scientists to target either light or heat to specific regions of the flies during flight and also allows them to analyze the animals’ brain cells. Studying the Drosophila melanogaster, aka the fruit fly, specifically, the team genetically modified a number of them to be temperature-sensitive, or at least more so than common fruit flies. Then, using infrared light and a rise in temperature up to 30 degrees Celsius, the team is able to cause a change in certain aspects of their behavior. This happens nigh-instantly, within the fraction of a second, giving direct control over many different aspects of the fly.

As proof-of-principle, the team showed that they were able to use FlyMAD to induce behaviors that were somewhat out of the ordinary for flies, including forcing them to “moonwalk” and, in studying certain neurons that had been attributed to the flies’ courtship song, getting the flies to attempt to mate with a ball of wax.

The FlyMAD system opens up a great deal of potential research opportunities in studying these animals, not just controlling them. These new insights in how the brain of a fly works will ultimately give us a greater understanding into how the mammalian brain works, and while this is indeed a great step forward in terms of scientific research and discovery, I cannot help but be a little unnerved by the thought of studying a mammalian brain with a tool that is literally called a “Mind Altering Device.”

Scientific discovery: wonderful and sometimes also a bit terrifying.

I am going to go get fitted for a tin hat now.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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