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Optogenetics: Using Light to study the brain

By Shanna Edwards

Optogenetics is a new and exciting research tool that uses light to control how the brain functions. While this may sound a bit like mind-control, it is actually a way of learning about the different parts of the brain. In 2019, the Warren Alpert Foundation prize was awarded to four scientists who worked to develop this method. This prize is given to scientists whose research has improved the understanding of human diseases.

From Frontiers for Young Minds

Here’s how it works:

A particular green algae called Chlamydomonas Reinhardtii was discovered to contain a special light-capturing protein. When light touches this protein, the protein changes shape and allows tiny particles, called ions, to move through it. This shape-change causes many chemical reactions to occur, and eventually, the algae is able to make food for itself in a process called photosynthesis.

Scientists have been able to take this protein out of the algae and experiment with it. Through genetic engineering - which changes the genetic code of a living thing - they can insert this protein into the cells of the brain called neurons. Because this protein is sensitive to light, when you shine light on the engineered neuron, the protein opens up a channel that allows ions to flow in and out of the neuron. This flow of ions activates the neuron and causes it to send signals to the rest of the body.

Optogenetics is a revolutionary idea, because scientists can now study how certain parts of the brain work by controlling this protein. However, because this process involves experimental genetic engineering, it is not acceptable to use in humans yet. As scientists continue to develop this technique, it holds potential in treating certain health conditions in humans. For example, it is believed to be useful in treating diseases and disorders like Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, and anxiety.

Keep an eye out for this innovative research tool!

To learn more about optogenetics and its history, watch this YouTube video:



Editor: Judy Zhang

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