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Shining a light into the brain

MicroLED device next to a human finger.
[Image courtesy of University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and Washington University-St. Louis]

Researchers have figured out a way to insert tiny electronic devices that can detect and control light into the brains of rodents without harming the animals. Until now, similar devices, like light sources and sensors, have been safely placed upon the brain. But, inserting such electronics directly into brain tissue has caused serious damage and irritation.

Now, Tae-il Kim and colleagues describe how they used this new technology to implant tiny, light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, into the brains of rodents walking freely around their cages. The researchers genetically engineered the rodents' neurons to be sensitive to light, so that when they triggered the LEDs in the rodents' brains, nearby neurons reacted by releasing dopamine and other hormones.

These new wireless, ultra-thin devices can be attached to needles and inserted into various depths of brain tissue without causing any harm, they say. Such tiny electronic devices may eventually be used for medical applications, according to Kim and the other researchers. They suggest that, one day, doctors might be able to use these devices to alter light stimulation in response to drugs, pH levels, blood or oxygen levels in the human brain too.