By using light pulses to effectively shut down neural activity, scientists have essentially developed an “off-switch” for the brain.
In 2005, Stanford scientist Karl Deisseroth discovered how to switch individual brain cells on and off by using light in a technique that he dubbed “optogenetics,” now used by research teams around the world.
The problem with this technique was that although light-sensitive proteins were efficient at switching cells on, they were found to be less effective at turning them off. Now, almost a decade of research later, the Independent reports that scientists have been able to more effectively shut down the neurons:
“Mr Deisseroth’s team has now re-engineered its light-sensitive proteins to switch cells much more adequately than before. … 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.”
Insel went on to explain, “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.”
The 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 and addressed with minimal intrusion.