Weird Science: Researchers Figure Out How to Remote Control Stress Hormones

Wouldn’t it be lovely to just turn off all the incessant anxiety swirling around in your head right now?

Quick check-in before we dive in: How’s your mental health doing right now? Is your brain also a sea of anxiety and depression, swelling, and churning under the weight of the panoply of crises and bad news that inundate our isolation every second of every day?

You are not alone. According to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 19% of Americans say COVID-19 has had a “major impact” on their mental health. Instead of focusing on the negative though, we wanted to share a fascinating study we came upon on ScienceDaily that’s weirdly reassuring in our current state of collective dystopia.

The study, robotically titled “Transgene-free remote magneto thermal regulation of adrenal hormones” hides an intriguing and somewhat terrifying prospect: using magnetic nanoparticles, MIT scientists say they have figured out how to stimulate the adrenal gland in rodents to actively control the release of hormones linked to stress in their brains.

“We’re looking at how we can study and eventually treat stress disorders by modulating peripheral organ function, rather than doing something highly invasive in the central nervous system,” said study author Polina Anikeeva, an MIT professor of materials science and engineering and brain and cognitive sciences (what a resume!) in a recent press release.

So how does this work? For the study, researchers designed nanoparticles made of magnetite, a type of iron oxide that forms tiny magnetic crystals into several rats' adrenal glands, then let them sit there for six months. When the rats were exposed to a weak magnetic field in a later phase of the study, the particles heated up by about six degrees Celsius, enough to trigger the calcium channels in their brains to open up, release a rush of hormones, and transport the rodents into an entirely different emotional state without damaging any surrounding tissue.

The result, say scientists could one day help mental health professionals control and even turn off things like anxiety, pain, and PTSD in the brain, resulting in much less invasive alternatives to medical devices used to electrically stimulate hormone release –– all of which have proven unfeasible (and largely unethical) pathways for mental health treatment.

All we can say is: Hook us in.

Read more on Science Advances.