An 'OFF' Switch For The Brain

An "OFF" switch for the brain uses light pulses to shut down neural activity. The method uses the research of Stanford scientist Karl Deisseroth, who discovered how to switch individual brain cells on and off by using light - 'optogenetics'.


(An off switch - for the brain)
In the upper left opsin, the red color shows negative charges
spanning the opsin that facilitated the flow of positive (stimulatory) ions
through the channel into neurons. In the newly engineered channels
(lower right), those negative charges have been changed to positive (blue),
allowing the negatively charged inhibitory chloride ions to flow through.

Now, after almost a decade of research, scientists have been able to shut down the neurons as well as activate them.

Mr Deisseroth’s team has now re-engineered its light-sensitive proteins to switch cells much more adequately than before. His findings are presented in the journal Science.

Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded the study, said this improved “off” switch will help researchers to better understand the brain circuits involved in behavior, thinking and emotion.

“We’re excited about this increased light sensitivity of inhibition in part because we think it will greatly enhance work in large-brained organisms like rats and primates."

The new techniques rely on changing 10 of the amino acids in the optogenetic protein.

“It creates a powerful tool that allows neuroscientists to apply a brake in any specific circuit with millisecond precision, beyond the power of any existing technology,” Mr Insel explained.

This technique could help scientists develop treatments for patients with some brain diseases as it could allow problematic parts of the brain to be switched off with light and tackled with minimal intrusion.

Fans of sf great John Brunner may recall the data-retrieval mode used to access the memories of Nickie Haflinger in Brunner's 1975 masterpiece The Shockwave Rider. In the story, the subject could be "turned on" or "turned off" using this method.

The man in the bare steel chair was as naked as the room's white walls... Tiny adhesive pads held sensors in position at a dozen places on his scalp...

From each sensor a lead, fine as gossamer, ran to the... data analysis console...

Not looking up, the girl in white plastic said, "Yes, sir, he's status go."

She headed for the door. Taking a seat at Freeman's invitation, Hartz said doubtfully, "Don't you have to give him a shot or something? He looks pretty thoroughly sedated."

Settling comfortably in his own chair adjacent to the data console, Freeman said, "No, it's not a question of drugs. It's done with induced current in the motor centers. One of our specialties, you know. All I have to do is move this switch and he'll recover consciousness - though not, of course, the power of ambulation. Just enough to let him answer in adequate detail. By the way, before I turn him on, I should fill in what's happening..."

From The Independent.

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