Researchers believe they have found a way to turn the neural circuits in the brain on and off without using surgery.

In conditions such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, the neural pathways in the brain do not function they should. Currently it is possible to target these pathways, but this often requires surgery.

However, new research suggests that in the future it may be possible to selectively turn neural circuits on and off non-invasively. The technique has been dubbed “acoustically targeted chemogenetics” or ATAC.

Published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, the research conducted by the California Institute of Technology showed ultrasound waves, gene therapy, and synthetic drugs could be used for brain control.

Making temporary brain control a reality

Researchers used a three-pronged strategy to test the brain control technique on mice. Firstly, they used sound waves in combination with small bubbles injected into the blood to temporarily open the blood-brain barrier, a protective layer that stops substances in the blood from getting into the brain.

Once the blood barrier was open, a virus was injected to deliver genetic instructions to the desired cells. Finally, a drug that turns specific neurons on or off was administered.

When this technique was trialled on mice, researchers were able to turn off memory-forming neurons, making them temporarily unable to form new memories.

Schlinger Scholar and a Heritage Medical Research Institute investigator Mikhail Shapiro said:

“By using sound waves and known genetic techniques, we can, for the first time, noninvasively control specific brain regions and cell types as well as the timing of when neurons are switched on or off.”

Potential uses of temporary brain control in humans

The researchers hope it could eventually be used to treat epilepsy.  Many patients with epilepsy currently undergo surgery to cut out the regions of their brain where seizures are thought to be triggered. With the ATAC method, specific brain areas could, in theory, be switched off temporarily without surgery.

Lead author of the study Jerzy Szablowski believes it could be used to treat a range of neurological and psychiatric conditions:

“This method is reversible. You can administer a drug to turn off neural cells of interest, but, with time, those cells will turn back on. You can also perform drug dosing to determine how completely you are shutting off that region of the brain.”

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Other methods of fine-tuning neural circuits are also in development, with some researchers using light via implanted optical fibres to control brain regions.

Pharmacology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Bryan Roth believes that non-invasively controlling the brain could have a considerable impact on neurology:

“This is an impressive, innovative approach that will be useful for many neuroscientists.”