Humans can develop habits in response to environmental cues – for example eating when we are stressed. In much the same way a rat can be trained to run down a T-shaped maze towards chocolate when it hears a tone. Whilst these habits often seem stable or difficult to change, researchers have found that it is possible.
Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University introduced light-sensitive proteins into the infralimbic cortex of a rat’s brain. When a tone was played the proteins were stimulated using fibre optics for 3 seconds, disrupting cortical activity in a small region of the brain. This caused the rat to remain unresponsive to the tone and break the habit. The results were instant and highly specfic.
Whilst chemicals or partial-brain removal have previously been employed to change behaviour, these methods are considered blunt and are permanent. This technology represents a targeted approach to exciting or silencing different parts of the brain.
Implications and next steps: This insight is certainly a ‘wildcard’ (a low probability, high impact occurrence). Whilst it is highly unlikely that this method will be used to influence human behaviour in the next 10 years, if it were to happen, the impacts could be extreme and would likely generate considerable public concern if used unethically. However, it might offer major benefits in reducing obesity, smoking and drug or alcohol abuse.