A Brief Primer on Optogenetics

There's a joke running around the Stanford Neuroscience graduate program regarding the popularity of optogenetics. During the many seminars I have attended while at Stanford, I've noticed that the Neuroscience researchers are involved in a steamy love affair with optogenetics. In the current issue of NatureNews, a news feature explores the history of optogenetics, explains the bases of the technique, and generally serves as one big love letter from systems neuroscientists to the inventors of the technique, Stanford Professor Karl Deisseroth and now-MIT Professor Ed Boyden.

For those non-neuroscientists out there, optogenetics is a technique that uses light to activate or silence neurons with an intense level of specificity. In more scientific terms, optogenetics involves infecting target neurons with protein channels that open following illumination with particular wavelengths of light. Optogenetics was pioneered by Deisseroth and Boyden back in 2005, when they first inserted a light-sensitive channel from green algae, called channelrhodopsin-2 (ChR2), into cultured neurons. Since then, Deisseroth and Boyden have provided opto-tools to over 750 labs all over the world, and have created multiple light-sensitive channels that allow highly sophisticated activation and suppression of neuronal populations.

The Nature article includes an excellent description of the basic optogenetics technique that is perfectly suited as an introduction for both non-molecular biologists and non-neuroscientists. In addition, it interviews several eminent systems neuroscientists (including the highly-likable* UCSF Professor Loren Frank, and Stanford Professor Krishna Shenoy) who have utilized optogenetics to make significant advances in their research. All in all, well worth a read.

Neuroscience: Illuminating the Brain. by Lizzie Buchen:  NatureNews, Published online 5 May 2010 | Nature 465, 26-28 (2010) | doi:10.1038/465026a.

*Note: "Highly-likable" is based on my personal experience - arguably the funnest grad school interview I had was with Loren Frank.

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Astra Bryant

Astra Bryant is a graduate of the Stanford Neuroscience PhD program in the labs of Drs. Eric Knudsen and John Huguenard. She used in vitro slice electrophysiology to study the cellular and synaptic mechanisms linking cholinergic signaling and gamma oscillations – two processes critical for the control of gaze and attention, which are disrupted in many psychiatric disorders. She is a senior editor and the webmaster of the NeuWrite West Neuroblog