Optogenetics: Controlling the Brain with Light

Photo source/credit: Ed Boyden/McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT

Photo source/credit: Ed Boyden/McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT

What if we could suddenly cease cravings caused by addiction or turn off feelings of depression with the flip of a switch? To better understand “one of the hottest areas of neuroscience research,” the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) welcomed three guests to discuss the latest developments in the field of optogenetics. The June 9th event was the latest in a series of luncheon briefings on Capitol Hill, hosted by AAAS and funded by the Dana Foundation.

A recent AAAS write-up of the event describes optogenetics as being able to “turn brain cells ‘on’ and ‘off’ with pulses of light” in hopes of better understanding neurological disorders. Through that understanding, researchers such as Edward Boyden, director of the MIT Media Lab and one of the co-developers of optogenetics, hope to find a cure for epilepsy, depression, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s disease, to name a few.

“Understanding how networks of cells in circuits work together to give rise to behaviors, thoughts, and emotions requires new technology,” said Boden, one of the speakers at the briefing, “and optogenetics is starting to provide new approaches for mapping and repairing the brain.” Though the field has only been around for about ten years, rapid advancements have been made by successfully activating single neurons in live mice.

For example, by engineering the genomes to contain a light-sensitive inhibitory molecule, researchers have been able to recreate mechanisms in narcolepsy. Once a light was turned on to shine through the optical fibers and into the animals’ brains, they instantly passed out in a manner similar to someone with the condition. However, when the light was turned off, they woke up again.

To learn more about the potential of optogenetics, read the full AAAS article.

– Seimi Rurup

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