Documenting the Coming Singularity

Friday, July 20, 2007

Let There Be Light: Controlling Neurons with Photons

Researchers have learned how to control neurons with pulses of light.

The dancing worm in a German lab is actually a bioengineering project run by neurobiologist Alexander Gottschalk at the University of Frankfurt. Yellow light moved to forward, while blue light pulls it back. Why not green and red? Must be a technical issue. In any case, the differently-colored light pulses affect its neurons, which in turn operate its various muscles, resulting in the forward and backward motions.

The worm has been engineered so that its neurons can be turned off and on at will, using these flashed of light.

The worm is in the vanguard of a revolution in brain science - the most spectacular application yet of a technology that allows scientists to turn individual brain cells on and off at will. "It's really changing the whole field of neuroscience," says the worm's developer, neurobiologist Alexander Gottschalk at the University of Frankfurt.

One possibility is that the technology, coupled with a method of getting light into the human skull, could create a Brave New World of neuro-modification in which conditions such as depression or Parkinson's disease are treated not with sledgehammer drugs or electrodes, but with delicate pinpricks of light. In the long term it is even possible that such treatments could be modified to enhance normal brain function, for example improving memory or alertness.

The technology could also lead to spectacular advances in basic neuroscience, allowing researchers to tease apart the neural circuits that control everything from reflexes to consciousness with unprecedented accuracy. "We'll be able to understand how specific cell types in the brain give rise to fuzzy concepts like hope and motivation," predicts Karl Deisseroth, a psychiatrist at Stanford University in California, who is spearheading some of the work.

Everyone is already for any safe treatment for neurological diseases, but this article is one of the rare ones that also mention the possible use of the therapy to "enhance normal brain function." So the next time you have lights in your head, they may be doing you some good.


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