Where science meets sci-fi
Every now and then something comes along that just makes your jaw drop with its sheer brilliance and monumental implications. When that happens in science, it usually feels like you are dropping into a science fiction story, and that's exactly the feeling I got when I listened to Dr. Deisseroth’s talk at one of Stanford’s neuroscience symposiums. It might be old news to many and I did actually already know a bit about the subject, but hearing about this new technology straight from the guy who made it happen and hearing about the directions it’s going in really made me excited.
Oh, whats this new miracle technology? Optogenics. Its gonna be huge. Trust me.
Optogenetics is seriously one of the biggest baddest research tools to hit neuroscience research EVER. The implications reach much farther than another new imaging technique (eg like EEG, MRI) and are more along the lines of something like the voltage clamp in the early days of single-cell recording.
Basically what you can do with optogenetics is selectively genetically modify a subset of neurons by causing them to express protein channels that open/close in response to certain frequencies of light. To a layperson this might not sound impressive until you know that opening these channels is how a neuron actually fires. So- stated another way- you SHINE LIGHT ON A NEURON AND IT TURNS ON. And this works IN VIVO. In MAMMALS. All you have to do is wire up some fiber optic cables into the skull. By being strategic in which types of neurons we genetically modify, we can therefore choose to activate specific neural networks with specific goals in mind.
This is where things start getting unreal. Since the technology first broke through here at Stanford in 2005, the practical applications have been rolling out. For example, by deactivating reward centers of the brain when when mice are exposed to cocaine, they SHOW NO COCAINE PREFERENCE TO WATER! Normally, mice will eschew absolutely anything in favor of cocaine- including food and water. But with a little light shining on the area (and the correct previous genetic modification) the mice are essentially temporarily cured of cocaine dependence!
Of course thats over-simplifying things. For example, we are probably actually eliminating the mouse’s desire to experience reward to ANY stimulus at all, so its not exactly a palatable cure. But its fun to picture a future using this technology. What if cocaine addicts could volunteer to have fiber optic cables hooked into their skull, and just pressed a button whenever they encountered cocaine. The effects are extremely transient- so maybe they could experience pleasure normally until they really really need to be impervious to temptation. Could we do the same for nicotine addicts?
This is really only the tip of the iceberg. Researchers have used optogenetic paradigms to make mice STOP in their tracks or move in endless circles, as well as to instantly turn the normally timid creatures into much bolder versions of themselves. both of these particular examples can be particularly scary if applied to humans. a coworker at the same talk painted a rather perplexing scenario as we were walking back. imagine a dystopian future in which a government vaccinations of all children include a dose of a harmless virus that primes our brains for such light treatment. Deisseroth hinted that technology for achieving optic stimulation trans-cranially is not too far in the future… what if a police officer had merely to point a laser at someone’s head to have them literally freeze in place?
Deisseroth was asked in the Q&A about human applications, but he claimed that his group was excited enough about its current use in animal research that it wasn’t thinking ahead to any form of clinical research or trial. He totally smirked when he was saying it though. A sort of- this is what my lawyer thinks I should say so nobody gets scared- kinda look. Either way- the future is super bright in this area (pun unintended!). It has already won the “method of the year” award for 2010 and I would bet 100 bucks there’s a Nobel Prize in the future for Deisseroth (which is incredible because he is so young!) Its awesome that the origin and hub of this research is here at Stanford. Its definitely something I’d like to look more into- I could see myself going into graduate school to work on this.