It sounds like science fiction: a scientist devising a method of manipulating movement by implanting tiny nanoparticles in worms.
But it’s true. In fact, that research is now the basis for a $1.3 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant because continued experiments could have implications for the treatment of brain injuries in humans.
The leader of the research, Arnd Pralle, says the brain is still a largely a mystery.
“It’s like you take a big computer and you know where the resister is and you know where the hard drive is. But the in-between, how the processor [of the brain] works, we do not understand,” says Pralle, a professor at the University at Buffalo.
Comprehending how the brain operates, in order fix it when things go haywire, is the overall goal of the project. But Pralle’s team can’t experiment on humans. That’s where worms come in handy.
The squirmy insects don’t have brains, per se, but the behavior of the neurons in a worm body can provide scientists with an idea of how behavior can be manipulated by certain testing methods.
For instance, Pralle can insert nanoparticles in brains that can then be guided by an alternating magnetic field.
“But our brains are very well protected to bringing things from the outside into it. There’s the so-called blood/brain barrier that prevents agents, viruses, proteins, nanoparticals from actually entering the brain,” he says.
To ensure nanoparticle overcomes a body’s natural defense for the brain, Pralle designed a virus that will carry tiny nanoparticles to specific locations in body's neuronal circuitry. This is less invasive than other methods that try to understand how the mind works.
Pralle is one of the only scientists in the world that specializes in the field. The NIH grant will last four years and pay for two researchers, lab space, and hundreds of mice to be used for experiments.
“This is taxpayers’ money,” Pralle says. “The idea is that we put it back out into the public for the greater good of science and humanity, so to say.”
But positive results are not guaranteed. In fact, the grant comes from a program especially designed for high risk projects. But Pralle says he looks forward to confronting the challenge.
“That’s why I love coming to work every day.”