Health


An ‘off switch’ for the brain


For illustrative purpose only, file photo

Scientists have developed an "off-switch" for the brain to effectively shut down neural activity using light pulses. In 2005, Stanford scientist Karl Deisseroth discovered how to switch individual brain cells on and off by using light in a technique he dubbed 'optogenetics'.

Research teams around the world have since used this technique to study brain cells, heart cells, stem cells and others regulated by electrical signals. 

However, light-sensitive proteins were efficient at switching cells on but proved less effective at turning them off. Now, after almost a decade of research, scientists have been able to shut down the neurons as well as activate them. 

Deisseroth's team has now re-engineered its light-sensitive proteins to switch cells much more adequately than before. His findings are presented in the journal Science.

Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded the study, said this improved "off" switch will help researchers to better understand the brain circuits involved in behaviour, thinking and emotion. "This is something we and others in the field have sought for a very long time," Deisseroth, a senior author of the paper and professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioural sciences said. 

"We're excited about this increased light sensitivity of inhibition in part because we think it will greatly enhance work in large-brained organisms like rats and primates." The new techniques rely on changing 10 of the amino acids in the optogenetic protein.

"It creates a powerful tool that allows neuroscientists to apply a brake in any specific circuit with millisecond precision, beyond the power of any existing technology," Insel explained.

This technique could help scientists develop treatments for patients with some brain diseases as it could allow problematic parts of the brain to be switched off with light and tackled with minimal intrusion. Merab Kokaia, PhD, a professor at Lund University Hospital in Sweden who has used optogenetics to study epilepsy and other conditions praised the research.

"These features could be much more useful for behavioural studies in animals but could also become an effective treatment alternative for neurological conditions where drugs do not work, such as some cases of severe epilepsy and other hyper-excitability disorders," he said.

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I suffer from sudden memory loss when exposed to direct sun light.( in tropical South India). There is intense pain at different spots on the head and at times accompanied by swelling of a nerve or artery near the temple. After cooling the head in an AC room or direct blast of cool air the pain reduces and memory returns!! Some time back I experienced going blind when simultaneously, along with exposure to direct sun/light and subjected to stress This experience jellys well with what is found from the research studies in the article. I have not taken any drug or medicine for about twenty years now for this or any other problem. I now keep cool and cover my head with a cap and meditate whenever possible. Keeping the head cool helps from the attack occurring. I am in my 70s.