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What if you could control your brain with light? Spoiler alert: you can.
We know that this sounds like some sort of freaky sci-fi movie, but it’s true. Scientists have unlocked the potential to use a combination of light and genetic engineering to control the brain.
Keep reading to learn about this amazing scientific breakthrough coined optogenetics
How Does the Brain Work?
The brain runs off of neurons, a special type of cell that helps the nervous system function. These neurons produce our behaviors and thoughts through communication.
When scientists were approaching how to work with the human brain, they had to understand how neurons communicated with one another.
How Do Neurons Communicate?
Our brain, spinal cord, and nerves are control by the electrical and chemical activity that comes from the neurons inside of them.
A scientist by the name of Luigi Galvani discovered the power of electricity in the human body from his very first electrical stimulation study in the late 1700s.
The stimulation used to control the neurons of the brain is exactly how Dr. Wilder Penfield, a brain surgeon, would come to map the brain. He wanted to understand which areas of the brain were most important for function, so he used electricity.
Dr. Penfield gave us the first map of the brain’s neurons by using electrical stimulation of the brain. He also gave us the first realization that we could control the human body by stimulating the brain like this.
How Was Optogenetics Discovered?
Being able to control the human brain was an amazing discovery, but scientists wanted more. They wanted a more precise way of controlling what goes on in the brain. This would later be called optogenetics.
This method of brain stimulation controls neural communication through a combination of light and genetic engineering. In order to control the brain with light, we have to make the brain sensitive to light.
Scientists that are conducting optogenetic studies are using their specimen’s neural code and adding a new piece to it. This piece holds opsins within it. Opsins are the key to getting the brain to respond to light.
What Are Opsins?
Don’t worry! Scientists aren’t putting some random creation in your body. Opsins are completely natural proteins.
Opsins were originally discovered in algae. This protein is why algae are drawn towards sunlight.
If placed into the genetic code correctly, opsins should become a part of all neurons in the brain. This makes them all reactive to light.
However, we did mention that optogenetics was a more specific way of electrical stimulation. To fulfill these specific needs, scientists became strategic about where they placed the opsin within a laboratory specimen’s genetic code. This placed the opsin on specific neurons that they wanted to study.
Channelrhodopsin-2, otherwise known as ChR2, is the most well-known and most used opsin in neuroscience. This specific opsin was discovered in green algae, and it only responds to blue light.
Scientists have discovered that they are able to turn neurons on when they shine blue light on a neuron with ChR2 in it. When the light goes off, the neuron goes off too.
This kind of control is exactly what scientists were looking for in their studies. Since blue light does not affect normal neurons, scientists became able to pinpoint neural studies to those neurons which they coded for ChR2.
Why Does Optogenetics Matter?
As we mentioned earlier, optogenetics became the more specific variation of electrical stimulation upon its discovery. Scientists gained more specific control over the human brain when they discovered the work that opsins can do in the brain.
The addition of opsins to targeted neurons in the brain is what separates electrical stimulation from optogenetics. Just remember that optogenetics gives us specific control over the particular neurons and their functions. This is all for the purpose of mapping out and understanding the brain.
We should note that scientists have been mapping out the mouse brain. Surprisingly, humans have very similar brain and neural patterns to mice. All of these studies do apply to the human brain.
Scientists use optogenetics to figure out which parts of the brain are most used by the neurons that are there. This will tell us which pathways produce certain behaviors. This could also tell us what parts of the brain are damaged in brain injuries.
Optogenetics gives us insight into how individual neurons work together by using the stimulation of one to track the reaction of another. The study of the layout and the communication bridges throughout the brain is what will help us understand those conditions and diseases that disrupt the function of the brain.
As we improve these strategies and procedures over time, we come to know more
How Does Optogenetics Affect Us Today?
Optogenetics first became a way of electrical stimulation in 2005. This was when the first study began. Improvements and discoveries along the way have transformed how we use these lights to study the human brain.
Optogenetics has helped us discover which part(s) of the brain trigger certain emotions or how the brain reacts to certain physical stimuli. One of our most recent discoveries has led to the use of optogenetics in vitro. Scientists want to learn about how a fetus’s brain functions and grows while still in the womb.
How Are Scientists Moving Forward?
Scientists are continuing to study optogenetics to this day. They have just scraped the surface of an entire brain stimulation revolution.
The most recent question that has come to fruition in the medical community is how to control multiple neurons at the same time to control someone’s response. This could come to cure brain abnormalities from physical diseases to mental conditions.
Optogenetics is a ground-breaking scientific study tool that will take the world of neural stimulation beyond where it has ever gone. With some light and a little genetic engineering, scientists are looking at the greatest advancements in neuroscience ever.
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