Two Breakthroughs to watch in neuroscience

Optogenetics as the next frontier?

Astonishing inventions over the years have been seen by neuroscience over the years. From fMRI, PET and TMS and many more, they have transformed the way we came to understand the brain and its functioning.  The brain and mind has been called “the last frontier”. And there is so much more to know – because, even though scientists know what the brain consists of (nerve cells or ‘neurons’ and glia – which provide support functions for neurons), scientists do not yet know how they are all wired together. It’s little wonder, as there are about 86 billion neurons, each with about 10 000 connections. The possible neural connections is believed to be larger than the number of people in the universe!

 

LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL

To shed ‘light’ on this immense task in understanding the brain’s wiring diagram, Sir Francis Crick (the discoverer of the DNA molecule) expressed interest in the idea that light could be the answer.  In 2015, Karl Deissterof was awarded the Breakthrough Prize for his work on optogenetics.

Optogenetics work like this: scientists genetically modify neurons by injecting them with a virus that are specifically encoded with genes that are light-sensitive, so that the [ion] channels on the neurons that control the flow of electrons through the neurons – and therefore their functioning – open and close in response to light. Think about this: when red light for example is shone onto a neuron, it fires; but when it’s blue or green light, then nothing happens.

Last year (2015), scientists where able to combine optogenetics and fMRI (called ofMRI), to verify that the firing of local excitatory neurons is fully sufficient to trigger the complex signals detected by fMRI

Scientists were also able to excite dopamine (pleasure) neurons in the mouse brain. This research is highly relevant to illnesses related to pleasure/reward, such as depression.

Through optogenetic research, scientists showed that specific neurons together with other cells modulate a type of brain wave known as a gamma wave. Those waves in turn enhance the flow of information through cortical circuits.

The more scientist learn about the brain’s wiring diagram – or connectome – the more old theories will be confirmed or refuted and new discoveries will be made. I’d say the future is bright in this one…

 

To read more about optogenetics, click here

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