A relatively new field of study called optogenetics is affording scientists the ability to activate and deactivate individual neurons of the brain using only light. This light-switch method is paving the way to an exponentially brighter future in neuroscience.
In April 2013 President Obama announced that he would ask congress for $100 million in 2014 in what he called The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The initiative seeks a more thorough understanding of the human brain. According to Obama, the goal is to “better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember.” Optogenetics will undoubtedly play a vital role in attaining this goal.
Related Article: Electronic Brain Implants Increase Intelligence
While Obama’s goal seems straightforward, the brain is one of the most complex structures humans have ever come across. According to Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health,
It’s an amazingly ambitious idea. To understand how the human brain works is about the most audacious scientific project you can imagine. It’s the most complicated structure in the known universe.
Until a few years ago, before the method of optogenetics had been created, scientists depended on fMRI technology to scan areas of the brain and observe which areas are most active. If an area of the brain was found to be inactive, the only way to activate it was by using a wire probe. While the probe was invasive, it still gave scientists a powerful and effective tool, and allowed them to activate individual brain cells. But, what if we want to investigate and understand a single neuron, or a group of neurons, or different groups all at once?
There are approximately 84 billion neurons in the human brain. This number has always seemed daunting, especially with the relatively limited tools of the past. Optogenetics, however, throws this hurdle aside in a blaze of innovation.
Related Article: Doctors Communicate with Vegetable Through Brain Scans
The method of optogenetics involves using only light to activate neurons based on their genetic type. Optogenetics is non-invasive and can even be performed on freely moving animals while still retaining exceptional precision.
Elizabeth Hillman, a biomedical engineer at Columbia University, is very excited about the optogenetic breakthrough, explaining that,
[Through optogenetics] you can select that very specific genetic cell type, and you can tell that specific cell type to react when you shine light on it.
For example, in the video below, scientists selected a specific motor neuron in a mouse to be affected by light. Just by shining a blue light on its head, they tell the mouse to start running. When the blue light disappears, so does the mouse’s movement.
While the methodology is opening doors left and right, optogenetics does not come without faults. Because neurons don’t naturally respond to light, it is necessary to alter the gene with additional genetic material so that it reacts to the optogenetic process. Genetic engineering in humans isn’t exactly mainstream right now. We know that using viruses to alter genes in humans works very well, but there are obvious risks associated with that process.
Related Article: Controlling Dreams and Implanting Memories
Another issue is that the light cannot reach the deepest cells in the brain. Additionally, optogenetic precision still has much room for improvement. Despite these concerns, optogenetics is still heralded as one of the top ten scientific breakthroughs of the decade. One of the most recent breakthroughs in optogenetics was the ability to influence cell types in the pre-frontal cortex.
So, how will optogenetics personally influence your life when it is commercialized? Depression, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, addiction, and even fear may one day be flipped off with a simple flash of light. Consequently, these illnesses could be activated with a flash of light as well.
The future is clear: multicolored laser pointers will become the new standard tool for doctors and soldiers alike.