More than 800 laboratories around the world are blending gene therapy, neural engineering and fiber optics into a technique called optogenetics – by illuminating neurons in the brain with light-sensitive proteins. By triggering bursts of brain activity in specially-wired lab animals, the researchers are able to see brain activity in cells that control a mood, movement or disease. “Most of the cells in the brain don’t respond to light. They are locked in the dark in the skull. We can bathe the whole brain tissue in millisecond pulses of light and we only affect the cells we made sensitive to light. The effect achieved is instantaneous,” says neuro-psychiatrist Karl Deisseroth at Stanford University.

While still experimental, optogenetics has not been tried on people, and treatments that work well in lab animals are not always successful in humans. Yet researchers are optimistic this method of study will transform brain research – leading to better treatments for psychiatric problems, medications with fewer side effects, and more effective brain implants to help control symptoms in people with Parkinson’s disease.   1/21/13

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