The light shining on a part of the mouse’s brain changes the way the animal functions.

Single-Celled Optogenetics

Until recently, using lights to control specific brain cells with artificially implanted light - sensitive proteins was an unlikely innovation. However, optogenetics is now one of the most progressive fields of study with much untapped potential.

Karl Deisseroth, a leading researcher in the development of optogenetic techniques, had once used a new treatment for depression and epilepsy called vagus nerve stimulation, or VNS for short. By sending electrical signals to an area of the brain associated with moods through the vagus nerve, VNS effectively cured the depressed patient who had remained unaffected by all other forms of treatment. Although Deisseroth’s patient had not suffered any major side effects after the implant surgery, it was necessary to conduct a basic cognitive test every time Deisseroth increased the voltage to check if the electrical signal had damaged other parts of the brain.

Given the low accuracy of the VNS currents, affecting thousands of neurons instead of the single neuron responsible for a disorder, there were several dangers that made patients wary of this treatment. However, scientists have begun to use localized light-sensitive opsins on cell bodies to solve this problem. Unlike other opsins, which attach themselves to cell bodies, dendrites, and axons to activate neighboring neurons when light is shone on an area of the brain, this opsin enables scientists to specifically target a singular neuron by attaching itself to solely the cell body.

What does this advancement signify for the optogenetic field? Not only does it mean that the aforementioned problems with optogenetic treatment will no longer be an issue, but it also allows scientists to conduct procedures and experiments requiring high precision. With single-cell optogenetic control, researchers may be able to map out parts of the brain ~ an organ essential to our survival, yet one that we know nearly nothing about.

With the unimaginable possibilities optogenetics holds, we will likely see it used to treat several other mental disorders like Alzheimer's and bipolar disorder in the future.

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Christine Kim

Christine Kim, currently a sophomore at Cupertino High School, has long been interested in technology and its application in the real world. She has participated in events such as hackathons and science fairs to expand her knowledge in select branches of technology, and spends time researching neurological topics that intrigue her. By contributing to the National Youth Tech Journal, she hopes to improve her writing skills and push herself to stay updated on the newest technological developments.