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Effort to Remotely Control Brain Cells Gets Push from Innovative Grant

Scientists developing a non-invasive technique for triggering brain activity receive $1.2 million from the Human Frontier Science Program

Release Date: April 16, 2012

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UB Assistant Professor Arnd Pralle, PhD, a physicist, has pioneered a method of using tiny, magnetic particles to remotely induce neurons to fire.

BUFFALO, NY. -- Scientists developing a non-invasive technique for remotely controlling the brain have received $1.2 million from the Human Frontier Science Program to intensify their work.

The project is led by University at Buffalo Assistant Professor Arnd Pralle, PhD, a physicist who has pioneered a method of using tiny, magnetic particles to remotely induce neurons to fire.

The ability to stimulate different neuronal networks on command would help scientists gain new information about how circuits within the brain control behavior. This capability would be of particular value to researchers studying Parkinson's disease, traumatic brain injury and other problems caused by damaged or malfunctioning of neurons.

The Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) grant adds to $1.3 million that the UB-led research has already received from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Using the HFSP award, scientists will develop new biocompatible nanoparticles, and identify the arrangements of nanoparticles that promote the fastest signaling.

The grant will fund the work of Pralle and three partners: neurologist Thomas Knoepfel from the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Wako-shi, Japan; physicist Wolfgang Parak from Philipps University in Marburg, Germany; and microbiologist Dirk Schueler from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany.

"Having the close collaboration with experts in complementary fields will really push our project forward," Pralle said.

The team was one of 25 that received program grants out of a field of applications that included almost 800 letters of intent. The HFSP grant program prioritizes international and intercontinental collaborations between biologists and scientists from other fields.

Pralle's technique for remote neuro-stimulation involves the use of heated, magnetic nanoparticles to open heat-activated ion channels in the brain.

In a nutshell, scientists apply an alternating magnetic field to the brain that causes the particles' magnetization to flip rapidly, generating heat. That heat then stimulates the ion channels to open, depolarizing the neurons and causing them to fire.

The specific research funded by the Human Frontier Science Program will involve developing and testing two different kinds of magnetic nanoparticles: Artificial particles with biocompatible coatings that Parak will develop and protein-coated particles that Schueler will synthesize using bacteria.

Knoepfel will apply the technology in brain slices and in vivo, and Pralle will work to optimize the speed and efficiency of signaling.

Related Stories:

Can Magnetism Help Us Control the Brain, Remotely?: http://www.buffalo.edu/news/12926

With Magnetic Nanoparticles, Scientists Remotely Control Neurons and Animal Behavior: http://www.buffalo.edu/news/11518

Nature Nanotechnology News and Views on 'Magnetogenetics': http://www.nature.com/nnano/journal/v5/n8/full/nnano.2010.163.html

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