Making a mouse move when being exposed to a certain light might seem like hypnosis. However, it’s only a new tool in neuroscience called optogenetics. Actually, scientists are beginning to find out that one can control the brain’s activities using light.
In explaining the field of optogenetics, a biomedical engineer at Columbia University, Elizabeth Hillman, explained, “Instead of using a wire probe inserted into the brain to poke and activate brain cells, with optogenetics, scientists could turn on individual cells with just light. You can select that very specific genetic cell type, and you can tell that specific cell type to react when you shine light on it.”
It’s no wonder she went on to say that this ingenious method created an instant buzz with a number of scientists showing interest as to how they could procure this technology to be used in their research.
The first study that has managed to use this technology was one conducted by scientists at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and that sought to understand the neurochemical aspects of alcohol addiction.
And thanks to using optogenetics, they were able to determine patterns of dopamine cell activity and which is said to reduce alcohol addiction. The reason for this is that with optogenetics, scientists are able to turn off or on certain neuron cells as and when they want.
Yet despite this being feasible with mice, using optogenetics on humans is a different matter altogether as this requires researchers to add genetic material to the brain that you want to control.
In addition, it’s very hard for light to reach deep into the human brain and in the case that it does, might cause unwanted problems in reaching too many cells.