Next-Generation Optogenetics could Control Single Neuron

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Researchers have discovered a way to control single neurons using optogenetics, a technique that relies on a new type of light-sensitive protein.

Optogenetics target single cells with precise control over both the timing and location of the activation. Researchers at MIT and Paris Descartes University have developed a new optogenetic technique that molds light to target individual cells having engineered light-sensitive molecules to stimulate individual neurons. This new study shows how individual cells and their connections can generate specific behaviors such as initiating a movement or learning a new skill.

The new technique relies on light-sensitive protein that can be embedded in neuron cell bodies, combined with holographic light-shaping that can focus light on a single cell. “You would want to control neurons independently, rather than having them all march in lockstep the way traditional optogenetics works, but which normally the brain doesn’t do,” said Ed Boyden, an associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences and biological engineering at MIT. The study was published in Nature Neuroscience journal in November 2017.

This technique can be used to study role of neurons during brain tasks such as memory recall or habit formation. To achieve independent control of single cells, the researchers combined two new advances: a localized, more powerful opsin and an optimized holographic light-shaping microscope. This can be used to create three-dimensional sculptures of light that envelop a target cell.

According to Optogenetics Market report published by Coherent Market Insights, Optogenetics technology is used by placing the genes that express light-sensitive proteins into mammalian cells, which normally lack such proteins. When the proteins are illuminated with specific wavelengths of light, they change the behavior of the cells, thereby introducing certain types of ions or pushing out a few to alter electrical activity. The researchers were able to stimulate single neurons in brain slices and then measure the responses from cells that are connected to that cell. This paves the way for possible diagramming of the connections of the brain and analyzing role of connections change in real time as the brain performs a task or learns a new skill. Researchers are working on extending this approach into living animals by improving their targeting molecules and developing high-current opsins that can silence neuron activity.


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