Scientists have genetically engineered remote-controlled fruit flies that can be made to jump and beat their wings with pulses of laser light.

Light-sensitive triggers in the flies’ brains and nervous systems allow the insects’ actions to be directed by shining a laser beam at them, reports reputed science portal Eurekalert.

The breakthrough by scientists from Yale University’s School of Medicine opens up new avenues for analysing neural circuits without using brain implants and could ultimately lead to new ways of restoring body functions lost through injury and disease, say researchers.

But the idea of manipulating behaviour with a laser also raises the frightening prospect of sci-fi style “mind control” becoming a potential reality.

In some of the experiments, light controls were used to activate dopamine neurons that stimulated walking and affected the types of paths the flies chose to follow. Loss of dopamine cell activity in humans underlies Parkinson’s disease.

Changing conditions of the light pulses altered the activity level of flies and the direction of their flight.

Researchers genetically engineered fruit flies with special “receivers” embedded in specific nerve cells.

The receivers consist of ion channels – proteins that act as gateways for electrically charged particles.

A small molecule called ATP, injected into the flies, unlocks the ion channel gate. But the ATP is trapped in a chemical “cage” that can only be opened by stimulation with laser light.

When millisecond pulses of ultraviolet laser light were shone at the flies, the ATP was freed to activate the ion channels, which in turn affected the flies’ behaviour.

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