Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Who Turned on the Light?

      In our brains, neurons are continuously sending and accepting messages, thus communicating with one another. With so many different networks of neurons, its no wonder scientists desire to understand how each type of neuron plays a role in the functioning of the brain.  By developing the proper techniques to comprehend neuron roles and their functions, we can finally understand how a disease abnormality affects the brain.

      Karl Deisseroth, a member of the bioengineering and psychiatry facilities at Stanford University, has given neuroscientists a new look into the nervous system. Through his technique of using optogenetics, which combines optics and genetics to control well-defined events within specific cells, we can genetically modify neurons to either activate or deactivate when shining flashes of LED light. For example, by expressing channelrhodopsin-2 and turning on a blue LED light in a mouse, researchers can influence it to start running in circles.
       With more insight on the nervous system, patients suffering from psychiatric diseases could receive better treatments or possibly a cure. One very common psychiatric disease is schizophrenia, which relies heavily on the release time of dopamine. If abnormal levels of dopamine are present within the brain, the person will suffer from hallucinations. At the University of California San Francisco, researchers were able to use optogenetics to manipulate the signaling of dopamine neuron activity in animal test subjects. Their results showed that the stimulation of dopamine neurons at specific times could alter learning prediction errors and mimic prediction errors. This caused a long lasting impact on the reward seeking behavior of the test subject. By observing the behavioral responses from dopamine signaling, researchers were able to learn the role of dopamine in prediction error learning. Even more importantly, they were able to show how crucial dopamine signaling is in the brain. With these kinds of breakthroughs, psychologists can begin to offer better treatments for patients with schizophrenia.

Posted by Lindsey Janof (2)


  1. This is great! Like all techniques that are newly introduced, optogenetics has received mixed reactions. However I believe it is possible that optogenetics will revolutionise neuroscience! Researchers believe it will finally allow them to integrate the systems level with the cellular level, and could lead to numerous discoveries in the near future.
    Posted by Kristen Whitehead

  2. Optogenetics certainly provides an avenue for studying the brain like never before, especially considering it allows for testing on animals while they are alive in a new way. It seems that optogenetics could also allow us to study the organisms across the board, but probably only those which we can blue light to shine in a localized manner. Do you know anything about how small or large an organism must be for optogenetics to be useful and practical to attempt? How much research do you think is necessary before this type of treatment could be reliable?

    Posted by Michael Dailing

  3. Since Deisseroth published his article in 2010, optogenetics has really come a long way. Kristen, I just read that researchers can now observe optogenetics in color. Which is crazy, considering they could only use blue light before. At the University of Buffalo, Caroline Bass was able to prevent binge drinking by stimulating neurons in an animal study. Michael, I looked into optogenetic testing on other animals. As you know sometimes animal testing can show not so similar results in humans. I used Google to find an article from Brown University; in it they described using optogenetics on primates. The study shows that optogenetics is effective in larger animals. I’ll paste a link to the study at the bottom. Even with all this new information, I personally believe optogenetics is still in its early stages of study. Especially when experimenting on the human brain.

    Brown University Study:

    Lindsey Janof