Optogenetics: Using Light to Turn Memories On and Off

in Article, News
February 16th, 2015

Scientists have known about rhodopsins that are responsible for sensing light for a while. What if there was a way to insert those rhodopsins inside neurons? That’s exactly what scientists were experimenting with in the early 2000s and it’s this idea that lead to the birth of optogenetics.  By taking the DNA of channel rhodopsins from algae and inserting them into the membrane of neurons, scientists were able to make neurons sensitive to particular wavelengths of light. Channel rhodopsin and halorhodopsin are among the opins inserted into neurons by injecting viruses. Channel rhodopsin activates neurons while halorhodopsin silences them. Once the neuron expresses the light-gated cation channel channelrhodopsin-2 in its cells membrane, shining light on it for as little as a few milliseconds has a profound effect. It causes the opening of the channelrohodopsin-2 molecules, allowing positively charged ions to enter cell and cause the cell to fire.

Check out this video to see how optogenetics works.

Many experiments today use optogenetics to selectively turn neurons on and off in mice. What makes this method mind blowing is the high spatial and temporal resolution it gives scientists when working with the brain. It can be used on neurons in on a petri dish or within a living animal.  It could be used to learn more about the function of particular brain regions. For instance, one could temporarily inactivate one region to observe how it impacts activity in other connected brain regions.

Furthermore, it’s minimally invasive: once the virus containing the rhodopsin has been injected, all the scientist needs to do is shine a pulse of light. Researchers at Stanford have used optogenetics to induce muscle contractions in mice. At Case Western Reserve University, researchers implemented it to restore motor function in rats paralyzed by spinal cord injuries. Could optogenetics be used to recover vision loss, something most humans deal with as they age? Experiments conducted on mice with a lack of photoreceptors shows that shining light on bipolar cells (containing channelrhodopsin-2) causes action potentials to fire in the visual cortex. It would be amazing if scientists could overcome biomedical and technical obstacles to make this work in humans too.

Across the river at MIT, members of the Tonegawa lab have taken the technique of optogenetics one step further. Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu have been working to localize memories in the brain and activate them with a light “switch”. And they have accomplished this feat in mice. Promising experiments with mice suggest optogenetics can be used to turn off traumatizing memories and activate pleasant once. This could have implications for PTSD, where horrific memories could be suppressed. They also have experimented with the idea of implanting false memories into the brain, which they call “Project Inception.” For more information on this work (and a good laugh), check out Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu’s TED talk.

Seems to me like optogenetics is a promising technique that can lead to breakthroughs in neuroscience.

-Srijesa K.


[1] “The Birth of Optogenetics” http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/30756/title/The-Birth-of-Optogenetics/

[2] “Potential Benefits of Optogenetics” http://optogenetics.weebly.com/what-is-it1.html



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