Optogenetics is the amazing field that combines optics and genetics in order to control events in living cells. First predicted by Francis Crick (yes, THAT Crick) in 1999, a breakthrough came in 2005 when researchers found that mammalian neurons could be targeted and manipulated through this process (Fancy!). Optogenetics depends on manipulating channelrhodopsin, a type of chemical pathway in cells that has the unique ability of being controllable with light. It allows for them to be activated or suppressed when differently colored lights are directed at points on the membrane, changing their chemical balance. One of the most significant results of this is that scientists can selectively fire individual or groups of neurons in the brain with a high degree of accuracy. Sparking a mini-revolution in neurosciences, optogenetics allows the study of specific brain functions, including behavior. Since exploding in 2006, researchers have discovered methods to control the ability for mice to awake from a nap, the speed of eye movements in nonhuman primates, changing of social behaviors (such as angry to friendly) and possibly to teach new cells in the eye to see. The latter is one of the first movements towards therapeutic uses, aiming to improve or return sight to those whose primary sight cells (cones and rods) are dead. Tests on rodents seem to indicate that optogenetics will allow for possible therapies for human brain disorders, but it is unknown if some practices will scale to the complexity of the human brain.
Guest article written by Andrew Kays (ThePublicScience.tumblr.com)
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