Mind-controlled nanobots for targeted drug-delivery

In a world first, a man has used his thoughts to activate nanorobots inside a living cockroach and trigger the release of a drug in the insect. The researchers who developed this sci-fi-esque feat believe the technique could be improved to treat brain disorders such as schizophrenia and ADHD.

Artist’s representation of the nanobots (credit: imredesiuk/Shutterstock)

Artist’s representation of the nanobots (credit: imredesiuk/Shutterstock)

The study published last August in the journal PLOS One is a proof-of-principle experiment. The team of researchers at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and at Bar Ilan University (Ramat Gan, Israel) used DNA strands and a technique called DNA origami to build ‘nanorobots’. These are shell-like objects which drugs can be tethered to. The shell is ‘closed’ via a gate which has a lock made from iron oxide nanoparticles. When electromagnetic energy is provided, the lock is heated and opens, exposing the drug to the surrounding environment.

The electromagnetic energy can be supplied in various ways, but the team of researchers decided to use a person’s thoughts as the trigger. They programmed a computer algorithm to distinguish between a person’s brain activity at rest and, conversely, when doing mental arithmetic. Then they equipped the nanobots with a fluorescent drug and injected them in a living cockroach sitting inside an electromagnetic coil. The person wearing an electro-encephalogram (EEG) cap – which measured his brain activity and was connected to the coil – would then control the opening/closing of the nanobots respectively by performing calculations or resting. The team could tell whether the drug-delivery system worked or not by tracking the fluorescence signal from the nanobots going ‘on’ and ‘off’ inside the cockroach.

The most interesting aspect of the study is its potential further development. The algorithm could be trained to track other types of brain activity: “It could track brain states that underlie ADHD or schizophrenia, for example. It could be modified to suit your needs.” sayd Sachar Arnon, one of the researchers involved in the experiment. The idea would be to automatically trigger the release of a certain drug in response to stimuli associated to a specific brain disorder.

Because the ‘gate’ on the nanobots can be opened and closed on trigger, the technique is as well supposed to minimize the side effects usually associated with drugs intake. The nanobots could also be tailored to target only specific areas in the body, for instance by functionalizing their surface with proteins or molecules that only bind to specific receptors on the outside of particular cells.

While not too far, the technology is not ready yet. There are two main elements which researchers need to work on. Firstly a smaller, more portable way of measuring brain activity – something like a hearing aid-like EEG device, for instance. Secondly, a convenient way of delivering the electromagnetic energy – perhaps a smart watch. Such a combination of devices could then be used for instance to release a dose of Ritalin in response to a lapse in concentration from someone suffering from ADHD.  They could be used to treat condition such as anxiety or depression. “People could take this in all different directions” concluded Arnon.

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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