Flash of light controls brain

Flash of light controls brain

Karl Deisseroth is a Stanford psychiatrist and a neuroscientist, and one of the people most responsible for the development of optogenetics, a technique that allows researchers to turn brain cells on and off with a combination of genetic manipulation and pulses of light.

He is also one of the developers of a new way to turn brains transparent called clarity. At the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Deisseroth, 42, who has won numerous prizes and received plenty of news media attention for his work on optogenetics, is quick to point out that there is no sole inventor for this technology.

The reason optogenetics has transformed neuroscience is that it allows scientists to go beyond observation. In neuroscience, as in all science, it is crucial to be able to make and test predictions.

With his own lab, along with other researchers, he began to pursue two projects. The one for which he was hired was low risk, involving stem cells and methods to enhance the growth of neurons. The second was the possibility of using light to control brain cells.

At the heart of all optogenetics are proteins called opsins. They are found in human eyes, in microbes and other organisms. When light shines on an opsin, it absorbs a photon and changes. The genes to make the opsins needed to be inserted into the neurons, and several more steps were necessary so the system would work.

But although this was a breakthrough and a proof that light could be used to control neurons, the work was not picked up as a tool by the neuroscience community because it was hard to adapt to different biological systems.

Deisseroth's group, figured out how to get one of these opsins safely into mammalian neurons so that the neurons would respond strongly to light. 

In 2013, while continuing the work on developing optogenetic techniques, the Deisseroth lab produced another technique that Deisseroth has high hopes for. He and Kwanghun Chung, now an assistant professor at MIT with his own lab, managed to turn whole mouse brains transparent, with a method called Clarity.

This is not a technique for living brains. They infused mouse brain tissue with a hydrogel, a substance well known to chemists but not one previously used in neuroscience. The method leaves the brain tissue not only transparent, but also still available for biochemical tests.

The long-term goal of his work continues to be to find a way to help people with severe mental illness or brain diseases.
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