Optogenetics: When the Force finds Light Control

Controlling the brain.

The world where the Force can control your thoughts with a hand wave is coming soon to theaters near you. In the real world scientists are playing catch up and controlling the brain with light. Two leaders in the field just won the Breakthrough Prize. Karl Deisseroth and Ed Boyden are the creators of optogenetics – one of the hottest (and coolest) areas of science today. An area where biology, chemisty, physiology and physics clash to allow light control of thoughts. Kind of like the well known Jedi Mind trick…

Okay, well maybe not quite like that. We have to wave more than a hand, but we can turn neurons on and off with light. In fact, we can even see neurons fire with flourescence too!

How does optogenetics work?

Light activated proteins have been well known for decades. In fact, you have light activated proteins in your body – can you think of where? If you guessed in your eyes, you’d be right! We use a form of light activated protein to signal to our brain the images that we see! We aren’t the only creatures to find use of light in this way. There is a whole class of bacteria that use light to pump protons or ions across their membrane. By pumping charge they create a gradient across their membrane. Opening up other membrane channels to the charge allows them to use the gradient to create energy necessary for life!

Our bodies are always using gradients of ions in our bodies – but the most notable use of these gradients is our neurons. Neurons use changes in ion concentration across their membrane to fire (or not fire) – which means we use these gradients to move our fingers, think about what to make for dinner, or laugh at a movie.

Optogenetics merges light activated ion pumps with neurons to control whether a neuron can fire or not. And the results are almost as stunning as the on screen Jedi mind tricks. Really.

Check out the videos below to see it in action. Applications of optogentics is seemingly endless. From altering eating habits to preventing seizures and treating neuro degenerative diseases, light is unlocking our brain’s potential!