• Robb G. Best

Man vs. Mouse

Mickey Mouse is far more formidable than you might imagine. It’s no secret that Walt Disney has built an entire empire––or kingdom, if you will––on the unlikely foundation of a winsome talking rodent. From his inception as a wannabe sea captain to his more recent everyman persona, Mickey is an American icon on the magnitude of apple pie and Coca Cola.

"Steamboat Willie" sprang onto celluloid--and into cartoon history--in 1928. It, along with pretty much everything else copyrighted that year, was set to enter the public domain in 2003. You see, American patents are designed with a shelf life in mind. As the inventor, you own all the rights to your creation––and reap all the profits--for a set number of years. When your time is up, the ideas become free and available for everyone to copy, adapt, and improve upon. The goal was a robust environment for learning and advancing new technologies.

So why aren’t we drowning in innovative Mickey Mouse remixes?

By the reckoning of “brand experts”, Mickey Mouse is worth something like 3 billion dollars. No kingdom is letting go of a meal ticket like that without a fight. In 1998, Disney's lobbyists pushed for an extension. One huge legal battle (and $6.3 million in campaign contributions) later, we had a new copyright law, adding another 20 years between the death of the creator and the welcoming arms of the public imagination.

As a result, tens of thousands of totally unrelated works that had been poised to enter the public domain are now privately owned until at least 2019, all thanks to a cartoon mouse that has yet to learn how to wear his pants at a reasonable height.

So it appears that the mouse won--but wait, not so fast.

In a laboratory in California, the birthplace of the tricky Mickey, a crew of scientists headed by Karl Deisseroth have been able to take a single-celled light-sensitive alga, remove from it the protein that responds to light (called ChR2 for short), and marry it with a weak virus. The scientists then took the host virus and injected it into the brain of a lab mouse. (Let’s call him Mickey II.)

Once inside Junior’s brain cells, the scientists shone a beam of blue light onto the invaded neuron and used the light sensitivity of the ChR2 protein like a switch to turn the cell on and off. By artificially toggling these switches, neuroscientists have begun to understand what each cell does, and to locate where specific mental signals take place in the little guy’s noggin.

If the same goes for human brains, the health implications are unbelievable. Imagine doctors being able to reach inside and find exactly which cells to target, be it drug addiction, depression, or even Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is especially promising; scientists believe is largely caused by mistimed firing of the same sort of neuron switches. In fact, Deisseroth’s team has already been able to induce and cure Parkinson’s type behavior in lab mice thanks to that light friendly ChR2 protein.

On a more frightening note: if the process can be transferred to humans, it could allow for manipulating our brains on a cellular level––i.e., mind control. Would it be possible to switch off someone’s fear or pain neurons? Are we inching ever closer to Bourne Supremacy territory?

Mickey might think he’s got the upper hand, but unless he can stave off the patent folks one more time, come 2019 we’ll all be able to stake a claim on those iconic ears. It appears that the neuroscientists at Stanford already own Mickey’s mind.


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