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.