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Limitless: The Emerging Field of Optogenetics

November 25, 2015

The term “optogenetics” sounds like the typical pseudo-scientific terminology you’d hear in the forgettable dialogue of a low-budget sci-fi flick from the ‘80s. However, in 2015, it is actually an emerging field of complex neuroscience whose pioneers are on the verge of potentially revolutionary breakthroughs.

Optogenetics: Stranger than Science Fiction

Around the world, scientists are using optogenetics to learn more about the connections between the brain and the mind – how the brain controls emotion, cognition, and behavior. It’s an emerging technology that makes brain cells photosensitive in order to stimulate those cells using light flashes transferred through a fiber-optic wire. Optogenetics allows scientists a new method of discovery in charting precise neural circuitry, and it also gives them the ability to manipulate cells in the brain and control certain aspects of behavior. This treatment method has yet to be used on human subjects, but preliminary tests with lab animals has shown significant potential in altering moods like fear, anxiety, and reward.

The efficacy of optogenetics is due to the fact that the nervous system is catalyzed by electrical activity. Therefore, transmitting controlled electrical impulses to specific areas of the brain and body will result in changes to various aspects of our personality, cognition, and emotional state. Primitive iterations of this sort of medicine have a complicated past, but as we learn more about the inner workings of our anatomy, we are able to harness electrical currents for effective medical treatment.

Karl Deisseroth

The wunderkind behind this potentially groundbreaking field is Karl Deisseroth, a practicing psychiatrist and neuroscientist working in the Bioengineering Department at Stanford University. In addition to his research on optogenetics, he is also using vagus-nerve stimulation (VNS) to improve mood and behavior in patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression. VNS transmits electrical impulses from a surgical implant in the chest along the vagus nerve to the brain, where they enter the deep-structures of the brain and regulate mood.

After struggling through the better part of the ‘00s to develop a practical application for his research, Deisseroth was able to stimulate the motor cortex of a lab mouse in 2007, causing it to move on command. This led to a write-up in the New York Times and subsequent scientific papers by his research assistants that were published in Science and Nature. This exposure eventually generated a great deal of excitement in the neuroscience community, and suddenly, respected neuroscientists around the globe were utilizing aspects of Deisseroth’s work in their own bioengineering experiments.

The Potential Impact of Optogenetics

Optogenetic experiments are now being carried out at hundreds of laboratories worldwide. Gary Lynch, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at University of California, Irvine, is using optogenetics to conduct memory experiments on the hippocampus, a deep-brain structure imperative for constructing narrative memory. His team is now able to locate and disrupt specific neurons. They are then able to determine the effect this has on memory.

Ed Boyden, who left Stanford to start his own lab at M.I.T., has manipulated a photosynthetic protein to produce an electrical current that terminates neuronal activity in lab animals. Additionally, researchers are able to dye-stain cells with fluorescent proteins that can influence behavior. Afterward, they are able to read the circuit activity that is generated when lab animals engage in certain tasks.

Deisseroth’s and others’ studies into optogenetics could also have significant implications in the future for brain injuries and other afflictions. In 2013, the Obama Administration announced the BRAIN Initiative – a $300 million program designed to foster technologies used to treat neurological afflictions such as Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Deisseroth was involved in the creation of the initiative and is part of a panel reviewing grant applications for it.

One possibility for future development in this area is implanting LEDs that would flash light into deep-brain structures to quell anxiety or temper hallucinations. Other scientists are investigating optogenetics as a way to treat afflictions of the peripheral nervous system. Neuroscientists are even looking into the possibility of treating blindness using optogenetics. Researchers conducting experiments with the retinas of lab animals have had such success that they hope to begin trials with human subjects within two years.

A Fresh Perspective

Optogenetics is a promising field that is already revolutionizing the way that scientists think of the anatomy and physiology of the brain. We are likely years away from utilizing this burgeoning technology to treat human patients suffering from a variety of afflictions, but it seems that applying optogenetics in this way is a foregone conclusion, especially in instances of mental illness.

Historically, the prevailing theory surrounding mental illness was that these afflictions were the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. Deisseroth isn’t so sure, stating, “If you say, ‘There’s some such thing as a serotonin deficiency in depression,’ then anything you do that specifically increased serotonin would be an antidepressant… Some things fit chemical patterns, others don’t.” Today, because of neuroscientists such as Deisseroth, previous notions about the nature of mental illness are shifting to focus more on neural circuitry. Their research suggests that mental illness might be the result of disruptions or faults in the brain’s wiring, which implies that optogenetics could be a useful tool in combating these afflictions.

At the Law Office of William D. Cook, our staff has successfully litigated many cases related to traumatic brain injury, and our sincere interest, extensive research, and vast knowledge of this field has reaped significant financial recovery for our clients. If you or someone you know has suffered a traumatic brain injury, please contact the Law Office of William D. Cook by calling (907) 694-2000 or visiting our website today. We offer free consultations to determine the merits of your case, and our fee policy ensures that you will not pay a dime until your case is successfully resolved.


Colapinto, J. (2015, May 18). Lighting the brain: Karl Deisseroth and the optogenetics breakthrough. The New Yorker. Retrieved from



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