Technological advances continue to occur every day and they benefit many areas of American life. One area that is reaping especially big benefits is health care. A recent advancement in health care technology involves optogenetics.

Understanding Optogenetics

Optogenetics is a field within neuroscience that combines the study of genetics and the study of the light-responsive nature of our living cells. The field includes inserting light-responsive cells into specific genes, as well as technologies for the delivery of light deep into the tissues of living beings.

The purpose of sensitizing certain cells to light is to enable new approaches to the treatment of conditions such as fear conditioning and phobias, cocaine dependence, and atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat), among others. Many of these applications are still in the development phase, but testing has moved from fruit flies into mammals.

This type of treatment is superior to traditional microelectrode activation of cells, or shock therapy, because it is both reversible and targeted to specific cells and reactions. The light-sensitive cells are shown to exist in the brain without any obvious impairment, and research is expanding to include treatment of various neurological diseases.

Some of the exciting applications of optogenetics include recovery of sight through introducing photosensitivity to the visual cortex, treatment of Parkinson’s and epilepsy, mapping brain areas activated by particular movements or experiences, and analyzing the neural pathways in the brain.

Challenges Facing Optogenetics

As with many new technologies, there are many unanswered questions and issues to be resolved. One of the issues is improving the method of getting the light sensitive genetic material into the cell. This process, called “transfection,” is currently accomplished using laboratory-created viruses. However, the creation of animals with transferred genes, such as transgenic mice, would be more ideal for experimentation but also much more time consuming.

Another challenge in this exciting field of neuroscience is the tools used to transmit light into the tissues. Technologies continue to be developed that can deliver targeted, appropriately colored light to cells within the brain. The best method of light delivery continues to be debated within the field, and new experiments are conducted regularly.

Finally, there are many scientists who are using optogenetics as the “method of the day” and are not really looking into whether this is the best method for achieving their research goals. As a result, the field is muddied by those who dabble in the technique without understanding its real uses.

Optogenetics is an amazing way of looking at the brain, and new non-invasive light technologies have allowed it to become an important field of research. Even if it doesn’t apply to human physiology now, or perhaps never does, the field of optogenetics will help scientists understand more about how the brain works. The results of that study will benefit us all.