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What’s Next for Optogenetics?

Using flashes of light to control brain cells may be only the beginning for a remarkable research tool.

By Cathryn Delude // Spring 2013
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To ensure further advances within optogenetics, Edward Boyden, a neuroscientist and biological engineer in the MIT Media Lab and an inventor of the technology, wants to “democratize” the field and minimize patent restrictions and expensive royalties for nonprofit researchers. Boyden is working to make the optogenetic setup inexpensive (a system from scratch now may cost as little as $1,000), and he offers substantial help to researchers who want to apply the technology.

Boyden is currently working on designing wireless fiber optics for controlling neurons with light-activated proteins and developing a device that can simultaneously stimulate and inhibit neurons in 3-D patterns while also recording them and providing a feedback loop to modulate neural circuits in real time. He hopes eventually to have robotic devices that can sample a neuron’s biochemical properties, inside and out, to learn how they change as neural circuits are activated in the living brain. That could help flesh out notions of how brain regions modify gene activity and the production of proteins and brain chemicals such as serotonin as neural networks change.

Other researchers are being similarly generous and creative. Hongkui Zeng, a molecular biologist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, last year introduced lines of transgenic mice bred with the genes for producing light-activated proteins, eliminating the need for using viruses to introduce the genes. Those mice can be crossed with others that have been genetically programmed to express a foreign gene in particular types of neurons or pathways. “They are like magic mice,” says Boyden. “They free up the imagination for perturbing circuits, exploring what happens and asking what it means.”

Further fueling imaginative research, optogenetics has broadened from targeting ion channels that activate or deactivate neurons to influencing cellular receptors that control biochemical and signaling pathways. That could ultimately open vast new areas of biology to optogenetic investigation.

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