University of Virginia scientists have demonstrated that neurons in the brain that have been supplemented with a synthetic gene can be remotely manipulated by a magnetic field. The finding has implications for possible future treatment of a range of neurological diseases, such as schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.

“We may have discovered a major step toward developing a ‘dream tool’ for remotely controlling neural circuits, by manipulating specific cells using engineered gene products that respond to magnets,” said Ali Deniz Güler, a UVA biology professor who led the study in his neuroscience lab.

The finding is published online this week in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Güler and UVA neuroscience Ph.D. candidate Michael Wheeler engineered a gene that can make a cell sense the presence of a magnetic field. They coupled a gene that senses cellular stretch with another gene that functions as a nanomagnet. This synthetic combination turns on only when in the presence of a magnetic field, allowing them to control neuronal activity in the brain.

“We wanted to activate with magnetism a specific set of neurons in the brain responsible for pleasure,” Güler said.

Using gene therapy to insert the gene, they expressed the synthetic gene in adult mice or in zebrafish embryos, and witnessed remote activation of neurons the presence of a magnetic field through the altered behavior of the animals.

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