In the quest to understand how the brain turns sensory input into behavior, Harvard scientists have crossed a major threshold. Using precisely targeted lasers, researchers have been able to take over a tiny animal’s brain, instruct it to turn in any direction they wish, and even implant false sensory information, fooling the animal into thinking food was nearby.As described in a Sept. 23 paper published in the journal Nature, a team made up of Sharad Ramanathan, an assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and of applied physics; Askin Kocabas, a postdoctoral fellow in molecular and cellular biology; Ching-Han Shen, a graduate student in molecular and cellular biology; and Zengcai V. Guo, from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, were able to take control of Caenorhabditis elegans — tiny, transparent worms — by manipulating neurons in the worms’ brain.The work, Ramanathan said, is important because, by taking control of complex behaviors in a relatively simple animal — C. elegans have just 302 neurons — researchers can understand how its nervous system functions. “If we can understand simple nervous systems to the point of completely controlling them, then it may be a possibility that we can gain a comprehensive understanding of more complex systems,” Ramanathan said. “This gives us a framework to think about neural circuits, how to manipulate them, which circuit to manipulate, and what activity patterns to produce in them.”“Extremely important work in the literature has focused on ablating neurons, or studying mutants that affect neuronal function, and mapping out the connectivity of the entire nervous system,” he added. “Most of these approaches have discovered neurons necessary for specific behavior by destroying them. The question we were trying to answer was: Instead of breaking the system to understand it, can we essentially hijack the key neurons that are sufficient to control behavior and use these neurons to force the animal to do what we want?”Before Ramanathan and his team could begin to answer that question, however, they needed to overcome a number of technical challenges.Using genetic tools, researchers engineered worms whose neurons gave off fluorescent light, allowing them to be tracked during experiments. Researchers also altered genes in the worms that made neurons sensitive to light, meaning they could be activated with pulses of laser light.The largest challenges, though, came in developing the hardware necessary to track the worms and target the correct neuron in a fraction of a second.“The goal is to activate only one neuron,” Ramanathan explained. “That’s challenging because the animal is moving, and the neurons are densely packed near its head, so the challenge is to acquire an image of the animal, process that image, identify the neuron, track the animal, position your laser, and shoot the particular neuron — and do it all in 20 milliseconds, or about 50 times a second. The engineering challenges involved seemed insurmountable when we started. Askin Kocabas found ways to overcome these challenges.”The system that researchers eventually developed uses a movable table to keep the crawling worm centered beneath a camera and laser. The researchers also custom-built computer hardware and software, Ramanathan said, to ensure that the system works at the split-second speeds needed.The result, he said, was a system capable of controlling not only the worms’ behavior, but their senses as well. In one test described in the paper, researchers were able to use the system to trick a worm’s brain into believing food was nearby, causing it to make a beeline toward the imaginary meal.Sharad Ramanathan: “This gives us a framework to think about neural circuits, how to manipulate them, which circuit to manipulate, and what activity patterns to produce in them.” File photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff PhotographerGoing forward, Ramanathan and his team plan to explore what other behaviors the system can control in C. elegans. Other efforts include designing new cameras and computer hardware, with the goal of speeding up the system from 20 milliseconds to one. The increased speed would allow them to test the system in more complex animals, like zebrafish.“By manipulating the neural system of this animal, we can make it turn left, we can make it turn right, we can make it go in a loop, we can make it think there is food nearby,” Ramanathan said. “We want to understand the brain of this animal, which has only a few hundred neurons, completely, and essentially turn it into a video game, where we can control all of its behaviors.”Funding for the research was provided by the Human Frontier Science Program, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Pioneer Award, and the National Science Foundation.
Over 200 delegates were treated to some of the most stunning coastal views of Donegal today when they attended the ‘Connecting our Coastline’ Marine Tourism Conference in the Shandon Hotel at Marble Hill in Dunfanaghy. Delegates heard from a number of inspiring speakers including world famous marine biologist and Monty Halls as well as the Marine Institutes Thomas Furey, entrepreneur Naomh McElhatton, Clean Coasts Officer Beckey-Finn Britton and local businessman Jim Muldowney.This conference was hosted by the Donegal County Council’s Tourism Unit and was co-funded by the Marine Institute. Cathaoirleach Cllr. Gerry McMonagle believes that hosting a conference of this nature in such a stunning location highlights for us all the wonderful resource that we have in Donegal. “This conference is about providing businesses and organisations with a platform for networking and knowledge exchange. We have common aims and objectives and want the very best for the development of marine tourism in Donegal. This is a forum in which we can exchange information about our businesses, develop new connections and explore opportunities for collaboration.”Iga Lawne (DCC), Shane Smyth (DCC), Barney Mclaughlin (DCC) Liam Ward (DCC) Cllr Niamh Kennedy, Thomas Furey Joint Programme manager, Marine Institute, Jim Muldowney, Dive Arranmore Charters, Monty Halls, Naomh McElhatton, SMART NI, Beckey-Finn Britton Clean coasts officer for Donegal and Leitrim, Joy Harron (DCC), Cllr Gerry McMonagle Cathaoirleach, Joan Crawford Failte Ireland and Seamus Neeley (DCC)Celebrating international womens day, Anne Marie Conlon (DCC) Alana Greene (DCC), Cllr Niamh Kennedy, Joy Harron (DCC), Evelyn McMarketing, Becky Finn Britton, Jacqueline Lynch (DCC), Joan Crawford Failte Ireland, Iga Lawne (DCC) and Elaine McInaw marketing manager for Abbey and Central hotelsAlso speaking at the conference Seamus Neely, Chief Executive of Donegal County Council gave an overview of the extensive programme of work being delivered by the Councils Tourism Unit with a view to developing the Marine Tourism Sector in the county.He said “Today’s gathering demonstrates the wonderful drive and enthusiasm here in Donegal towards marine tourism. People want to connect and by working together we can harness the power of collaborative development in this sector. By having events such as this we have an opportunity to share insights and thought provoking expertise that will allow us to be creative and innovative in our approach to maximising the potential of this sector for the benefit of the county and the entire region.” Monty Halls certainly inspired those attending the event with his own insights, experiences and thoughts on how Donegal can maximise the value of our outstanding natural resources in a proper and sustainable way. Monty Halls marine biologist, broadcaster and adventurer speaking at the Marine Toursm Conference at the Shandon Hotel in Marble Hill Strand, DufanaghyThomas Furey from the Marine Institute presented details on the Irish national seabed mapping programme which is being delivered in partnership with Geological Survey Ireland while Naomh McElhatton gave a vibrant presentation on how businesses can work smart and use online opportunities to grow their business. She also gave the audience a glimpse of where the market is going with new virtual and AI technologies and the exciting opportunities that exist for tourism businesses in this area.Carolynne Harrison General Manager from the Shandon Hotel with Naomh McElhatton Becky-Finn Britton shared her passion for the sea and outlined the great work that is being done under the Clean Coast programme working with communities and local authorities along the coast. Jim Muldowny from Dive Aranmore Charters talked about his own successful business and about promoting the islands and coastal areas of the Rosses as a destination for enthusiasts of marine and coastal based activities.World-famous adventurer inspires at stunning Marble Hill gathering was last modified: March 8th, 2018 by Staff WriterShare this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Reddit (Opens in new window)Click to share on Pocket (Opens in new window)Click to share on Telegram (Opens in new window)Click to share on WhatsApp (Opens in new window)Click to share on Skype (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)