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The Science of Neuromods in Prey (2017)

The Weird Science of Prey

What makes world-building an interesting process is its ability to be a beautiful mix of the possible and impossible. All good fiction explores the idea of what could happen in other worlds. However, some of best fiction I have ever read, watched or played base these ideas on real-life concepts.  Today, I am getting the chance to combine my hard-core love for geek culture and solid science. We are going to take a brief look at the neuro-technology of 2017 sci-fi epic video game Prey and its infamous neuromods.

The How of Neuromods

Prey (2017) is a survival/horror game. You play as a scientist venturing through a space station overrun by a hostile alien menace called the Typhon. The Typhon are subjects for a set of questionable experiments involving devices called neuromods.

Prey video gameCreated with spliced Typhon-Human DNA, neuromods contain a serum that allows its users to insert different skills. These skills range from basic abilities like playing musical instruments to the absurd like shapeshifting into a cup. You may think this idea is maybe a bit far-fetched, but it has solid foundations in science. Let’s break it down.

According to a detailed description from an interview with Arkane Studios, the serum was injected into the eye socket, simultaneously getting the substance into the brain and creating a community where everyone apparently has nerves of steel. The neuro-ooze in these injections makes the neurons it encounters light sensitive. Then, using lasers and other forms of light, it maps the subjects’ brain. The device then uses the map to compare the subject’s brain to the brain of professionals in the target field. The neuromod then creates synthetic neurons to fill in the differences.

 This process is similar to optogenetics, a real technique in which light is used to turn neuron cells “off and on”.

What Is Optogenetics?

The Cells

NeuronsI’m going to sum up this slightly complex idea as simply as possible. Neurons are special cells that act as the telephone service of your nervous system.  The body cannot take any actions unless there is a delivery of a message somewhere. To do this, neurons releases chemicals that “excite” other neurons. This causes those neurons to “fire”  (i.e. make them reach an electrical peak) and release chemicals that excite other neurons. Your neural system is the most elaborate domino chain to ever be conceived. 

The Technique

Optogenetics is a process that involves using a virus to add algae-based light-sensitive genes into target neurons. These genes code for light-dependent proteins that make neurons more or less accessible to ions. How accessible a neuron is to these ions determine if the neuron will fire. Then, if and when the neuron fires, an action will take place in the body. Think of it this way: your neurons are cats and optogenetics just gave you a laser pen. The ability to control cells this closely creates endless possibilities. Its application has made optogenetics an essential procedure for a slew of disciplines in the sciences.

The Connection

Prey neuromodsThere is a clear connection between the neuromods in Prey and optogenetics when you consider the utilization of the technique. Firstly, optogenetics has been used A LOT for mapping out the human brain over the years. This has made great strides in helping our understanding of the functions of several portions of it. There has also been work towards using optogenetics in the field of memory and learning. For example, Liu and Ramirez have done experiments altering the memories of rats by turning a location-based memory on and off at any time using light. By turning it on at the right time, they could associate that memory with a new location.

Secondly, many ethical questions about neuromods in Prey mirror the present-day concerns about optogenetics and science overall. In his article, Karl Deisseroth mentions there are concerns about the use of optogenetics. Some fear it will lead to unnatural changes to “self and will.” That dilemma is the thesis of Prey. The first human subjects of the neuromod project involve ill-informed inmates. Characters often debate the morality of their presence in the station. This is a homage to the unethical experiments performed on prisoners like the Guatemalan Syphilis experiments. Because prisoners are held against their will, it is still debated and considered questionable whether or not a prisoner can participate in a study without it being some sort of abuse of power. 

Your Turn

Prey brings a lot of real issues and science into its trove of terrors, but what do you guys think?  Anything I miss? Is there something else you would like to have explained with science? Comment and let us know! For more gaming features, click here.


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About the author

Camille McIntyre

By day, Camille is an animal caretaker at a museum. By night, she is a prolific explorer of the fantastical. Whether it is built with ink, pixels, or hyperbole, she visits new worlds with feverish persistence and a keen eye for detail. If needed, Camille can be found in a place far, far away on a dark and stormy night, asking all the wrong questions as she finishes her journey there and back again.