Three More Star Wars-esque Studies (Think: Mind Control)
Not too long ago, I wrote up an interview with Ed Boyden, an assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab. It was a Q&A about the field of science that he’d more or less invented earlier this century: Optogenetics, in which he crams light-sensitive elements into non-typically light-sensitive cells, and then flips said cells on and off with flashes of colored light. At the time we spoke, Boyden was mostly putting it to use making blind mice see and was starting out on some neuron-by-neuron maps of the brain.
Since then, this stuff’s gotten even cooler. Recently, I’ve run across at least three more awesome, Star Wars-esque studies that have come out of Boyden’s lab, and more. The latest just hit Nature last week. Here’s a rundown of what’s going on in the field; read it now so that 50 years down the line when doctors cure your cancer/eliminate your diabetes/flip on your new kidney/solve those anxiety attacks, you’ll know the guys to thank.
Wireless Mind Control
Earlier this year, optogenetic technology was used to incite and suppress sex and violence in mice using flashes of light — decisively identifying the critical brain regions underlying these behaviors. Six months later, with a technological boost from Boyden and his colleagues at MIT, this has now gone entirely wireless. The advance, which resembles a double-layered computer-inspired graduation cap, allows for longer, larger and more realistic optogenetic behavioral studies as animals no longer need to be tethered by fiber optic cables, and the device doesn’t hinge on heavy, easily drained batteries because the power source is also wireless. Imagine any neurological condition where the behavior of the cells impacts the behavior of the person (so, essentially, all of them) – and this is huge step toward better ways to understand and treat them.
Reward Circuits: Off
Researchers have generally understood for some time now that the connection between the amygdala (the brain’s emotional nexus) and the accumbens (i.e., the reward center) was a hot one when it came to reward, craving, drug seeking, etc. But the brain has been too much of a mess to really see how they tie in together. Until last week when researchers from North Carolina pinpointed the exact role of that excitatory bridge by literally turning it on and off using optogenetics in mice, which, as it happened, turned on and off their reward learning and seeking behavior. It’s a pretty simple and elegant little study, overall, but it highlights two main points: 1) the sheer scope of how precise neuroanatomy can now become, thanks to these tools; and 2) our ability to exactly impact incredibly powerful behaviors. In this case, the subjects and reward were mice and sugar water – but … extend the thought down to the line to humans and say, nicotine, alcohol, or cocaine, and yeah …
This one’s a little different. Rather than using genes from light-sensitive algae cells, Swiss researchers took genes for light-sensitive elements from the eye and planted them into embryonic kidney cells, which they then slipped those under the skin of diabetic mice. Once implanted, the transgenic kidney cells responded to light by starting a molecular cascade that turned on a gene and made a compound that stabilized the blood sugar in the diabetic mice. All with a flash of light.