Lighting up the brain.

A little preamble: This week I wrote a guest post for another neuroscience blog. I talked about one of my favorite topics: optogenetics, the technique to control your neurons by shining a laser on them. Sounds like something Iron Man would do -- but is actually done by scientists in labs all over the world. Read on and enjoy!

In 1979, Nobel laureate Francis Crick mused about how wonderful it would be to find a way to control just one type of brain cells while leaving others untouched1. Twenty years later, seeing all the shortcomings of electrophysiology (low precision in targeting cells) and pharmacological manipulations (too slow in comparison to real neurotransmission), he went one step further and suggested that light might be the answer we’ve been looking for. The idea of switching neurons on and off like lightbulbs sounded both crazy and appealing, yet no one knew how to approach it. It took another six years for things to get real. Optogenetics was on its way.

Memory and the manipulations thereof.

Have you ever envied Kate Winslet’s character in the “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”? Have you ever wished that you could erase memories of a nasty ex just by pushing a button? (I sure did after one of my exes told me that trees have souls whereas I do not) Or that you could bring an elusive memory back into your head? (I bet everyone who has ever written an exam sure did). Basically: Would you like to manipulate memory?

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Shooting lasers into brain: sci-fi or reality?

Of all the stuff I came to do as a neuroscience undegrad there is one thing I particularly like to brag about. I shone lasers into mice brains, sliced them (brain, not mice) and created pretty fluorescent pictures out of them. Isn’t this the coolest opener at a party?

The way to have this kind of fun is called optogenetics and it is one of the hottest techniques in neuroscience right now. Pioneered by Karl Deisseroth of the Stanford University, this method is spreading like a wildfire through the neuroscience world and that for a good reason. As the name already suggests, genetical and optical technology are at play there. Gene technology is used to make specific cells light-sensitive, that is, to make them activate (or to shut down) when light falls on them and optical methods (=light) are used to subsequently manipulate these cells. This is done by the following steps:

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