In "I'm sure this will never be used for evil" news, a team of scientists at MIT announced yesterday that they developed a way to directly stimulate neurons through the use of magnetic nano-particles … Yay!

Image credit to Benedict Campbell. Wellcome Images.

The MIT team injected iron oxide particles into mice brains they apparently had just lying around. The magnetic properties of iron oxide allow the scientists to heat up the particles through alternating magnetic fields.

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In turn, these heated iron oxide particles trigger neural activity through heat-sensitive capsaicin receptors. Those are the same receptors that are triggered when you feel heat or eat spicy food. I may be wrong, but to me that implies that people may actually "feel" the heat as though they just had some spicy food or put their hand in a fire. Which sounds scary as hell. Anyway, they made a nice video and put in on youtube.

The light blue on the right-side shows neural activity resulting from the application of alternating magnetic fields on the iron oxide particles.

The team's goal was to develop a long-term means to stimulate neural activity without implanting obtrusive wires into people's heads, which they were able to accomplish. Iron oxide does not interact with the biological tissue of the brain unless it is heated and magnetic fields can be applied externally through a specially made device ... or I guess an MRI or a metal detector at the airport. I'm confident nothing could possibly go wrong here. The iron oxide has the added benefit of being able to stay dormant for long periods of time, or to put it another way, you can't easily remove nano-particles once injected into your brain. Again ... nothing could possibly go wrong.

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The team says that long-term neuron stimulation has direct application to cancer treatments as well as helping with a number of neurological disorders and I'm sure this is true. Then again, the work was partly funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has a wonderful history of only ever doing non-evil things. All I'm saying is let's collectively keep an eye on this one!

The study is published in Science journal and behind a pay wall, but a press release (with summary) from MIT can be found here.