Optogenetics: Illuminating Brain Function

Shedding light on brain function has never been so literal.

The idea that light could be used to control brain cells has always seemed like a far-fetched possibility, something more out of a scene from Star Trek than reality. The brain is a hugely complex organ, composed of multiple cell types that have distinct functions depending on the brain region they’re located in. These cells, called neurons, are important to everything we do, from how we make memories to how we know when to stop eating.  Understanding a specific cell’s role in a particular brain region, however, was a challenge. One way to understand a neuron’s function is to control how it communicates to other cells. Within the last decade, scientists invented a new way to control brain cells: by shining them with light.  This revolutionary technique, termed optogenetics, gives scientists an exciting window into how the brain works.

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