Saturday, October 26, 2013

Optogenetics - Switching on Neurons with Light

Brain structure and learning research is on an steep progress curve these days as imaging and signal processing is better understood. It is particularly cool to me that an important leap ahead has been achieved via the light receptors of algae found in the pond scum, Chlamydomonas. This simple algae uses light sensitive proteins to move (phototaxis) and feed via photosynthesis. So how did basic research on pond scum in 2002 get applied to brain research in the fall of 2013? Scientific curiosity and collaboration

An NSF-funded team of brain researchers at Stanford University, Karl Deisseroth, Edward Boyden, and Feng Zhang were looking for a chemical "switch" to turn neurons on/off. They used light sensitive algal proteins to turn on the electrochemical signaling of the neurons. These results also drove the development of tools to:

  • Turn off target neurons by manipulating light-sensing proteins
  • Deliver light via laser to target neurons in the brain
  • Insert light-sensitive proteins into different types of neurons to study their functions
  • Study of how gene expression in the brain may influence neurochemical signaling and how changes in key neuronal genes may influence learning and memory
So the next time you feel like pond scum, realize that even it has its strengths! Go science!

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