Optogenetics Sheds Light on Brain Circuits and Diseases
Using light to turn brain cells on and off, researchers are one step closer to mapping the brain
CHICAGO — Researchers are deconstructing previously mysterious brain mechanisms involved in learning, recall, and emotions through a relatively new technique combining light and genetics known as “optogenetics.” The new findings were released today at Neuroscience 2009, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world’s largest source of emerging news on brain science and health.
Optogenetics uses light to turn neurons on and off and enables researchers to study specific brain circuits with unprecedented precision. Findings using this tool already provide a greater understanding of how the brain works in both health and disease, and hold potential to improve therapies.
Today’s new findings show that:
• Stimulating cells with laser light in the brain region known for processing emotion helps relieve symptoms of depression, providing deeper understanding and suggesting potential therapies for sufferers who do not fully recover with antidepressant medication (Herbert Covington, PhD, abstract 286.18, see attached summary).
• The discovery of new light-sensitive proteins (from diverse ecological niches) underscores the unique interrelationships among science, the environment, and the diversity of life. These new tools improve understanding of the relationship between brain circuit activity and brain disease (Feng Zhang, PhD, abstract 806.1, see attached summary).
• Researchers have determined the specific neural connections in mice that lead them to behave as if they are drug-addicted, a profound step toward determining the brain pathways responsible for these actions (Garret Stuber, PhD, abstract 686.8, see attached summary).
• Using optogenetics, scientists have discovered that reactivation of complex memories may involve only a tiny fraction of brain cells, a concept that has been under debate (Michael Hausser, PhD, abstract 388.8, see attached summary).
In addition, researchers discussed relating findings demonstrating that:
• Optogenetics has helped establish causal relationships between defined brain circuits and behaviors in health or disease (Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, see attached speaker’s summary).
“Although relatively new, optogenetics has already proven to be an extremely powerful tool,” said press conference moderator Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, of Stanford University, a pioneer in optogenetics. “There are a hundred billion neurons in the human brain and countless subgroupings and intersecting populations of different cell types. Using techniques like optogenetics, we can map how, why, and when those types of neurons are used. Today’s findings bring us one step closer toward unlocking the brain’s mysteries and a better understanding of the origins of disease, behavior, and memory.”
This research was supported by national funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, as well as private and philanthropic organizations.
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