A laboratory technique called ‘optogenetics’ has emerged as one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs in recent history. Optogenetics involves the control of cells using light. When applied to neurons, this tool has the potential to cure blindness, treat Parkinson’s disease, and relieve chronic pain.

Optogenetics can be used to control the activity of neurons in freely-moving mammals. Using the technique, scientists are able to study the natural mechanisms of how the brain works and the pathological changes implicated in brain disease.

Dr. Karl Deisseroth, a world leader in optogenetics, gave a talk at the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning on July 6 as this year’s Aser Rothstein Lecture Series speaker. Deisseroth is the D.H. Chen Professor of Bioengineering and of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University. His background in both psychiatry and bioengineering places him in a unique position to approach optogenetics.

“What’s cool now is that we can control neurons and play in activity patterns — just like a conductor conducting an orchestra — and we can do this during complex behaviours and see what actually… causes certain behaviour, such as memory cognitions, affective, or emotional states,” Deisseroth said in an interview with The Varsity.

“The initial concept of [past] experiments were relatively cheap and easy, but then actually making it all work in a behaving animal took about four to five years,” he continued. “I had to build the technology and test it and apply it and also help other people because it was a very new thing and a strange kind of thing to do in science.”

Deisseroth sees optogenetics as a mature technology, but he believes there is always room for improvements, as he and his team are continuing to tweak it.

“The next step really is to go beyond and integrate it with other methods so we can… get to a deep understanding of those circuits,” he said.

Computer science and artificial intelligence offer new capabilities in this field, and the challenge will be to bridge the gap between these fields and neuroscience. “[This is] probably one of the most exciting places to be, but it needs people from all walks of life, and all kinds of disciplines… it’s a really wide-open territory for smart people.”

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