Lasers shone into the brains of mice can now activate individual neurons — and change the animals behaviour. Scientists have used the technique to increase how fast mice drink a milkshake, but it could also help researchers to map brain functions at a much finer scale than is currently possible.
Neuroscientists at Stanford University in California conducted their experiments on mice that were genetically engineered to have light-sensitive neurons in a brain region called the orbitofrontal cortex. That area is involved in perceiving, and reacting to, rewards. By shining a laser at specific neurons, the researchers increased the pace at which the mice consumed a high-calorie milkshake.
One goal of optogenetics is to create automated systems that manipulate the brain on the fly using only light… This might be done by engineering neurons to contain one protein that makes the cell fire when activated by a flash of coloured light, and another that causes the cell to flash in a different colour when it fires…. Such a system might be able to alter the neural processes that link alcohol with reward in addiction, or a visual trigger with flashbacks in post-traumatic stress disorder.
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