Silencing the Brain with Light

December 8th, 2010 by admin Leave a reply »

A team of postdoctoral fellows and students at MIT, led by MIT professor Edward Boyden, has found a class of proteins that, when inserted into neurons, allow them to be turned off with rays of yellow-green light. The silencing is near instantaneous and easily reversible. This kind of selective brain silencing, reported in the Jan. 7 issue of Nature, could not only help treat brain disorders but also allows researchers to investigate the role of different types of neurons in normal brain circuits and how those circuits can go wrong. By expressing these new genes, Arch and Mac, in neurons in the brain, it becomes possible to turn them off at very precise times, in order to see how they work together to implement the computations that lead to behaviors, or that go awry in neural diseases. “This is the result of mining the wealth of the natural world – genomic diversity and ecological variation – to discover new tools that can empower scientists to study complex systems like the brain,” says Boyden. “We’re using natural tools isolated from the wild to help us understand how neural circuits work.”

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