Right Turn: Turning the brain on and off with optogenetics

Author: Hamideh Emrani, 10/02/15


So many of today’s biomedical advances are only possible because of a step forward in basic science research that happened many years ago. Basic science, be it biology, math or physics, always tries to advance our knowledge of the universe around us. It doesn’t promise to develop drugs or cure disease, but sometimes leads to such developments anyway. I recently heard about an interesting technique called “optogenetics,” which uses a genius combination of some fundamental knowledge of light sensitive microorganisms, optics and genetics to build a light switch for the brain.

Through optogenetics, scientists have been able to selectively activate or deactivate certain populations of cells in the brain. This allows them to study the functionality of different brain cells and eventually understand what goes wrong in the case of a certain disease such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or Multiple Sclerosis. For this week’s Right Turn, I have chosen to feature a TED talk by Professor Ed Boyden of MIT, one of the innovative researchers who developed and refined this method. The talk dates back to 2010, when optogenetics was named as one of “the breakthroughs of the year” by the journal Science and “method of the year” by Nature Methods.

If you are interested in knowing about further applications of optogenetics, look for my upcoming interview with Professor Jin Hyung Lee of Stanford University. Her lab uses a combination of optogenetics and fMRI to study the brain in physiological and disease states.

Make sure to watch the video ‘till the end. The last experiment is really interesting and fun to watch.

Our regular feature, Right Turn, appears every Friday and we invite you to submit your own blog to info(at)ccrm.ca. We encourage you to be creative and use the right (!) side of your brain. We dare you to make us laugh! Right Turn features cartoons, photos, videos and other content to amuse, educate and encourage discussion.

As always, we welcome your feedback in the comment section.

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Hamideh Emrani

Hamideh Emrani

Hamideh is a scientific communicator and the founder of Emrani Communications, serving clients in Toronto (University of Toronto) and California (Stanford University). She earned her B.Sc. in Cell and Molecular Biology at UC Berkeley and finished her M.Sc. at the University of Toronto (U of T). She was an intern at the Carnegie Institute at Stanford University, honours research student at UC Berkeley and has won awards for best podium and best poster presentations at the Faculty of Dentistry and IBBME at U of T. She is passionate about science and loves to talk and write about it. You can follow Hamideh on Twitter at @HamidehEmrani.
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