With a flash of light, neuroscientists can now turn individual brain cells on or off. They do so using a set of tools, pioneered in part by UT Austin neuroscientist Boris Zemelman, called optogenetics.
For the first time, scientists can see how sets of neurons work together in a healthy brain during learning and memory recall, as well as in disorders, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, traumatic brain injury and addiction. Optogenetics is producing insights that could uncork a flood of new therapies.
It's been 15 years since Zemelman and neuroscientist Gero Miesenböck at Memorial Sloan-Kettering first discovered a way to genetically modify nerve cells so they would respond to light. Zemelman's lab now uses optogenetics to both perturb and track neuronal activity.
In a first-of-its-kind study coauthored with Eyal Seidemann, another UT Austin neuroscientist, researchers have even analyzed neurons' activity in primates engaged in a cognitive task. Experiments like these bring scientists closer to understanding the human brain.
Optogenetics in practice
Scientists use viruses to express foreign proteins in neurons of a living animal, so that the brain cells either sense or emit light. Light-sensing relies on proteins called opsins.