Optogenetics: controlling the brain with light

1 minute read

It’s a mad scientists’ dream come true! Researchers in the field of Optogenetics have discovered how to control brain cells using light. They take the light-sensitive genes from certain bacteria, using genetic-engineering techniques, and insert those genes into brain cells. These cells will then fire anytime light is shone on them. But how do scientists get light to brain cells? And why do we care if we can make specific brain cells fire? Light is usually introduced into the brain through a fiber-optic cable. Although this seems like a very impractical fashion-feature, combining it with genetic engineering techniques of pinpointing certain cells it allows scientists to fire specific neurons at an unparalleled level of accuracy. Using it, scientists have controlled the movement of mice, the taste-preference of flies, and have come to a far better understanding of mental illnesses like Parkinson’s’ disease and depression. Although human-testing is still some years away, using it in combination with special genes which work in the opposite direction (causing brain cells to glow when fired) it may also revolutionize human-computer mental communication. (Think robotic arms: the arm speaks to the brain by sending light to the brain, and the brain communicates to the arm by having certain brain cells illuminate.) Despite all of Optogenetics’ practical purposes, mad scientists can’t help but smile at that.

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