What's boiling up in technology - the WEF vision - IX - Optogenetics

Neurone activation by light through Optogenetics. Credit: MIT

Wireless LED devices developed by researchers at Stanford University for brain implants. Credit: Stanford University

In the WEF 2016 most impactful technologies, optogenetics is listed. It is a relatively new technology that has opened the door to a most precise way of interacting with a brain at neurone level. The impact has been in providing a tool for better understanding the brain, although the expectations are much bigger. 

>>>Back in 2005, that is just 11 years ago, scientists found a way to use the rhodopsin  molecule (the one that in our eyes captures the photons reaching the retina and converts the light signal into a chemical/electrical one to send the message to our brain) to activate a single neurone.  

Here is how it works (in a simplified way). Through bioengineering scientists can attach a gene producing the rhodopsin molecule to the gene pool of a neurone. They can also code the gene to produce a very specific kind of rhodopsin, one that reacts to the presence of a specific colour of light (wavelength). In this way they can condition different neurones to become sensitive to different colours of light. 

Then they hit at a desired time that neurone with that particular light colour. The light beam does not need to be very precise in the illumination spot, since as long as its colour is of that given wavelength only that neurone will be affected. The light activates the rhodopsin molecule that in turns activates the neurone.

To direct the light onto an area of the brain scientists have several tools at their disposal, from tiny optical fibres to electronic chips (with an LED) as small as a neurone that can be injected inside the brain.
 More recently (2015) scientists at Stanford have managed to create minuscule wireless LED devices that can be implanted in a mice brain and controlle wirelessly.

So far optogenetics have been used to study neural circuits “in-vivo” in animals, in particular in mice brains. In the future it might be used to selectively activate specific brain circuits in human brains to overcome malfunctions.We might expect to see the first impact on humans in curing some brain alteration in the next decade, although I would expect that it will be at least twenty more years before we can see optogenetics as a tool for curing the human brain.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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