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Susan Young Rojahn

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Neuron Light Switch Now Goes “On” and “Off”

A new optogenetic protein gives neuroscientists more control over brain circuits.

  • April 24, 2014

Optogenetics is a recent innovation in neuroscience that gives researchers the ability to control the activity of neurons with light. With this powerful tool, researchers are teasing apart the biological basis of memory, behavior, and disease (see “Scientists Make Mice ‘Remember’ Things That Didn’t Happen” and “An On-Off Switch for Anxiety,”). But for the first several years of this technology’s existence, the proteins that scientists added to neurons to make them react to light were only good at activating neurons. That limited researchers’ ability to understand neuronal circuits, sets of interconnected neurons that are thought to control behavior and, when misfiring, to underlie many brain conditions. Problems can arise from any imbalance in circuit activity, whether too much or too little. 

Now, two research groups have engineered new optogenetic proteins that can be used to efficiently silence neurons. One of the two new proteins comes from the lab of Karl Deisseroth, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Stanford University who helped develop optogenetics as a research tool. His group’s new “off” switch for neurons was created by changing 10 of the 333 amino acids in an existing optogenetic protein, which itself had been engineered by combining natural proteins from green algae. That advance “creates a powerful tool that allows neuroscientists to apply a brake in any specific circuit with millisecond precision,” said Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, in a released statement. The other new silencing protein, developed by scientists at the Humboldt University of Berlin and collaborators, was created by changing amino acids in the same existing optogenetic protein. 

Some researchers are also looking to optogenetics as a potential treatment for patients with a variety of conditions (see “For Mice, and Maybe Men, Pain Is Gone in a Flash,” and “Flipping on the Lights to Halt Seizures”) but there are huge challenges to overcome. The method requires genetic modification of cells to make them light-sensitive. It also requires implanted light sources for all but the shallowest of nerve endings. 

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