Optogeneics: Wireless Optical Brain RouterIn Biotechnology
Optogenetics might be a relatively unknown area of neuroscience, but it’s one that, thanks to some new research, could soon find itself (and its rodental subjects) in the spotlight. For the uninitiated, it’s the practice of manipulating animal cells using light (with a little help from gene therapy). At the moment, the only real way to investigate animal cells is to knock out a function, usually by breeding a genetically engineered mutant. We can breed a fearless rat, for example. Obviously this takes a matter of weeks or months — and even then, we don’t have a way of interacting with cells in real time; a particular function is either on or off. That’s where optogenetics comes in. The first step is to make cells sensitive to light — neurons, for example — usually using a virus (a fairly standard technique for gene therapy). Then, lasers are used to control those cells. Using the rat example, first you would use a virus to make all of its brain cells optically-sensitive; then, in real time, you can test whichever part of the brain you like using lasers — or perhaps multiple parts of the brain at once.
Optogenetics has been hailed as a breakthrough in biomedical science—it promises to use light to precisely control cells in the brain to manipulate behavior, model disease processes, or even someday to deliver treatments.
But so far, optogenetic studies have been hampered by physical constraints. The technology requires expensive, bulky lasers for light sources, and a fiber-optic cable attached to an animal—an encumbrance that makes it difficult to study how manipulating cells affects an animal’s normal behavior.
Kendall Research optogenetics deviceNow, back to the “wireless router” claim. In essence, optogenetics equipment has historically been too bulky to strap to a rat (or human). Kendall Research has developed a few prototypes that are battery powered, weigh just a few grams, and are wirelessly connected to a controlling computer. Instead of cumbersome lasers, Kendall’s devices use lighter, more efficient LEDs and laser diodes. Kendall Research now has lab animals scampering around with optogenetic devices strapped to their heads. Scientists can change the function of the animals’ brains by tapping on a keyboard, or they can even set up scheduled, autonomous tests.