Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Remote Control for the Brain

What if it were possible to treat brain disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy, and Parkinson's disease and other neurological and psychiatric disorders with more efficacy and fewer side effects?  Moreover, what if it this technology were as simple as switching a light on?  If you've suffered from mental illness, I'm sure this sounds too good to be true. Well, not according to Ed Boyden at MIT.

Neurons are themselves electrical devices, and in order to treat brain disorders it is necessary to understand how the elements of a neural circuit work together. It's not as simple as it sounds.

Brain cells in many disorders in the neurological field do not show damage to the individual cell, but an inability for the brain cells to create proper circuit function. Electrical stimulation provokes communication between nerve cells but cannot target specific neural cells. But now systematic analysis of brain circuits is possible. With this new light switch technology, it's possible to make neurons controllable with pulses of colored light. 
In summary, we have identified optogenetic proteins that act as molecular tools to make neurons controllable with pulses of colored light. We are now developing high-count arrays of optical fibers that enable perturbation of activity in distributed and complexly shaped neural circuits, in order to open up systematic analysis of brain circuits. By revealing the neural substrates that can most powerfully control and correct aberrant neural computations, these tools will lead to better therapies for treating brain disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy, and Parkinson's disease. New drugs can be generated that target these control circuits but not other unrelated ones, presenting more efficacy and fewer side effects. They may also present new targets for neuromodulation therapies such as deep-brain and transcranial magnetic stimulation. The ability to optically control cells may directly enable a new generation of optical prostheses, which can precisely control aspects of patient physiology using temporally precise pulses of light.
So the channelrhodopsin switch, or light-switch technology, may some day give birth to a treatment for neurological and psychiatric disorders that requires only a remote control to function correctly. 
The channelrhodopsin switch is “really going to blow the lid off the whole analysis of brain function,”-- George Augustine, Neurobiologist at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

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