Alt-week 4.13.13: micro-LED mind control, clear brains and clairvoyant ants

Brains are complex things. Man's quest to understand this lump of gray mass has become something of an obsession. In this edition, we learn about two new studies that could help oil the wheels of this cerebral journey. That, and some clever ants. This is alt-week.

Should we be concerned about science's continued attempts at controlling the actions of animals? We're giving the benefit of the doubt. For now. But new research using micro-LEDs to wirelessly control the behaviour of mice could make the process less intrusive, and open it up to the use of other sensors. The microscopic device allows the scientists to observe animal activity more naturally than before, too, thanks to it not requiring a tethered light source. Optogenetics is an increasingly popular method of controlling and studying neural activity (remember those cocaine loving rats?), so this new, lightweight technology should only serve to enhance this area of research, allowing for more complex test environments. Roughly one-fifth the width of a strand of hair, the micro-LED implant can be placed deep inside the rodent brain, while an even thinner wire connects it to an external wireless module (on top of the mouse's head). While it might not sound like it, this new approach is better for the mice, with tests showing less neural damage and less reaction from the immune system. The fact that one of the co-inventors of optogenetics, Ed Boyden, claims the ability to integrate sensors (which this small scale technology could offer) could enable "closed-loop" control of brain function definitely isn't a cause for paranoia. Is it?

If you are worried about a future drenched in optical mind-control, then this next story might only serve to make things worse. A team at Stanford University has developed a process that can turn mice brains transparent, while maintaining their form and molecular structure. The process allows the brain to be studied intact without needing to slice and dissect, it also facilitates non-destructive light- and chemical-based observation. The process -- called CLARITY -- not only offers a new level of insight to the physical brain, it could give a better understanding of how its structure is changed by disease. CLARITY works by removing the opaque lipids, and replacing them with a hydrogel from within the brain itself. This is an important step, as without replacing the lipids, the structural integrity of the brain falls apart. The process also works on human tissues that have been preserved for long periods, and is also thought to be applicable to larger scale biological systems and organs. Likewise, techniques such as anti-body staining, to visually reveal relationships between brain components can theoretically be flushed out, and repeated to explore different targets within the same brain.

Current earthquake prediction systems only provide a few minutes advanced notice of the fact. Seeking a reliable method of predicting the occurrence of these destructive events has proven elusive. Results from a three-year study in Germany, however, suggest that Red Wood Ants might hold the (ahem) answer. Gabriele Berberich from the team at University Duisburg-Essen noted that the ants instinctively build nests along tectonically active faults. The study also observed that the Red Wood Ant has a reliable, regular daily pattern of working during the day, and resting at night. In the two seismically active areas under investigation, Berberich found that there was a regular change in the ants' behaviour, hours before a quake. It's thought that the creatures have a sensitivity to gas levels in the local climate, or small shifts in the Earth's magnetic field. An extended study will be required to rule out confounding factors and influences, but Berberich claims the initial results are promising.

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