In a first-of-its-kind study published by a research group out of Northwestern University, researchers have shown that they are capable of programming and deprogramming mice to form social bonds amongst each other.
The study, published May 10th in Nature Neuroscience, is the first study in optogenetics (the study of controlling neurons via light) that demonstrates an ability to control social interactions in animals. Until now, researchers thought of this feat as being an impossible accomplishment due to the technology needed.
The research group, led by Yiyuan Yang, enlisted the help of bioelectronics pioneer, John Rogers, and his group to create a wireless, implantable device capable of emitting light to activate neurons.
“It sounds like sci-fi, but it’s an incredibly useful technique. Optogenetics could someday soon be used to fix blindness or reverse paralysis,” Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy, a neurobiologist at Northwestern who designed the experiment stated.
The device, only a half-millimeter-thick, was implanted near the medial prefrontal cortex of the mice, the region of the brain responsible for higher order executive function. Using a remote to control the light emitted by the implant, the researchers then synchronously activated the neurons in this brain region of different mice.
The mice whose neurons were synchronously stimulated resulted in having significantly longer and more frequent social interactions. When stimulation was desynchronized, the mice interacted for significantly less time and less frequently. The study shows the researchers were even capable of causing this effect between a chosen pair of mice in a group.
“This paper represents the first time we’ve been able to achieve wireless, battery-free implants for optogenetics with full, independent digital control over multiple devices simultaneously in a given environment,” said Rogers, who led the development of the implantable device. “Brain activity in an isolated animal is interesting, but going beyond research on individuals to studies of complex, socially interacting groups is one of the most important and exciting frontiers in neuroscience. We now have the technology to investigate how bonds form and break between individuals in these groups and to examine how social hierarchies arise from these interactions.”