Connecting neural circuit output to behaviour can be facilitated by the precise chemical manipulation of specific cell populations1,2. Engineered receptors exclusively activated by designer small molecules enable manipulation of specific neural pathways3,4. However, their application to studies of behaviour has thus far been hampered by a trade-off between the low temporal resolution of systemic injection versus the invasiveness of implanted cannulae or infusion pumps2. Here, we developed a remotely controlled chemomagnetic modulation—a nanomaterials-based technique that permits the pharmacological interrogation of targeted neural populations in freely moving subjects. The heat dissipated by magnetic nanoparticles (MNPs) in the presence of alternating magnetic fields (AMFs) triggers small-molecule release from thermally sensitive lipid vesicles with a 20 s latency. Coupled with the chemogenetic activation of engineered receptors, this technique permits the control of specific neurons with temporal and spatial precision. The delivery of chemomagnetic particles to the ventral tegmental area (VTA) allows the remote modulation of motivated behaviour in mice. Furthermore, this chemomagnetic approach activates endogenous circuits by enabling the regulated release of receptor ligands. Applied to an endogenous dopamine receptor D1 (DRD1) agonist in the nucleus accumbens (NAc), a brain area involved in mediating social interactions, chemomagnetic modulation increases sociability in mice. By offering a temporally precise control of specified ligand–receptor interactions in neurons, this approach may facilitate molecular neuroscience studies in behaving organisms.