For much of the history of brain research, it has been nearly impossible to accurately test ideas about how the brain works. “When we have the complexity of any biological system—but particularly the brain—where do you start?” says Stanford University neuroscientist Karl Deisseroth. Among scientists, he is best known for his development of optogenetics, a technology that renders individual, highly specific brain cells photosensitive and then activates those cells using flashes of light delivered through a fibre-optic wire. Optogenetics has given researchers unprecedented access to the workings of the brain, allowing them not only to observe its precise neural circuitry in lab animals but to control behavior through the direct manipulation of specific cells. Deisseroth, one of the rare neuroscientists who are also practicing psychiatrists, has made mental illness a major focus of his optogenetic research. Other scientists around the world are using the method to investigate some of the most stubborn riddles of neuroscience, including the fundamental question of how the physical brain—the nearly hundred billion neurons and their multitudinous connections—gives rise to the mind: thought, mood, behavior, emotion.
Because the technology permits researchers not only to trigger the activity of cells at the speed that the brain actually works but also to target cells in regions, like the amygdala, where there are mixed populations of hundreds of kinds of cells, optogenetics offers a previously unthinkable level of experimental precision. At present, optogenetics research has involved mainly animals like mice and rats, and its potential use for humans isn’t yet clear. But Deisseroth’s work with brain stimulation in patients hints at what may one day be possible.
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