How to 'take over' a brain

By Leonard Mlodinow, Special to CNN

updated 10:22 AM EST, Sun January 6, 2013


In junior high I was a science fiction fan, divorcing Ray Bradbury and Author C Clark novels of strange new worlds, robots, Martians and brain control. I was reading today about new research in the field of optogentics by Leonard Mlodinow.  The article sounds like someone out of science fiction and discussed fascinating new research in Optogenetics and the  discovery of a kind of protein that can be used to turn brain neurons on and off in response to light.

The exotic light-sensitive protein is not present in normal neurons, so scientists designed a way to insert it. That is accomplished through a type of gene engineering called "transfection" that employs "vectors" such as viruses to infect the target neuron, and, once there, to insert genetic material that will cause the neuron to manufacture the light-sensitive protein.

Put it all together, and you have that sci-fi-sounding technology: genetically-engineered neurons that you can turn on and off at will, inside the brain of a living and freely-moving animal.

It is the combined use of optics and genetics that give optogenetics its name, but it's not the "how" that makes optogenetics exciting, it is the "what." Scientists didn't really develop it to "take over" a creature's brain. They developed it, like fMRI, to learn about the brain, and how the brain works, in this case by studying the effect of stimulating specific types of neurons. To see how they are using it to study Parkinsons disease and Schizophrenia read on

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