A ray of light brightens outlook on brain disorders

Scientists are studying optogenetics, a treatment that targets specific neurons in the brain using light to turn them on or off.

Repairing the tangled pathways of the mind may take little more than a ray of light.

Scientists are beginning to understand how light can turn neurons in the brain on and off, a technique called optogenetics that could lead to revolutionary treatments for everything from depression to drug addiction to epileptic seizures.

A 2012 article in Nature America describes how optogenetics blends genetic targeting and optical stimulation to target specific areas of the brain.

The article goes on to discuss a problem that has plagued researchers since optogenetics first emerged – which genes and proteins should doctors use to get the best results for patients with different disorders? According to the Wall Street Journal, researchers at more than 800 laboratories around the world are still trying to work that puzzle out.

The Journal reported that optogenetic experiments using lab animals have shown researchers they can trigger certain brain activity in certain cells. But the technique has yet to be tried on humans.

Still, many have focused on optogenetics as a sign of hope in the fight against daunting brain disorders.

The Annual Review of Neuroscience detailed the promise optogenetics offers for certain conditions:

  • For those suffering depression, current medications can be slow to work and often have side effects. But an optogenetic treatment for depression could provide instant relief with few side effects, since the treatment is so targeted.

 

  • Today, drug addicts have no cure for the cravings they experience. But through precise targeting, optogenetics could turn off the neurons that trigger those reward-seeking sensations in addicts.

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