Neuroscientists’ dreams of reading the mind like Professor X are finally coming true.
As technology advances, the line between science and science fiction has continued to blur, and the idea of real-world telepathy is no longer light-years away. In fact, ‘telepathic’ technology is already providing insights into the brain’s response to addiction.
Optogenetics, a method combining optical and gene-editing technologies (thus the name), uses light to control neurons with unprecedented accuracy, similar to how a laser pointer stimulates a cat.
It all started in November 2003 with the first molecular description of channelrhodopsin, a protein made by green algae. The report disclosed that channelrhodopsin bombards the algae’s cells with ions. The influx of charged particles allows them to seek out sunny areas to photosynthesize. Just four months later, that report made its way to Dr. Zhuo-Hua Pan, a vision scientist at Wayne State University. Pan had already begun investigating ways to cure blindness, but the algal protein was the panacea for his studies. When asked about the channelrhodopsin discovery, Pat exclaimed, “[it was] one of the most exciting things in my life.”
One $300,000 grant later, Pan was able to get channelrhodopsin into the eye of a rat via a virus. The virus carried the genetic sequences coding for the algal protein to clusters of neurons (called ganglia) in the eyes and infected them with it. The channelrhodopsin-infected neurons jittered when exposed to light and were calm in the dark. Pan realised that he could activate the affected ganglia by switching the lights on and off. His methods were published in Neuron years later, but optogenetics research from institutions like Stanford had overshadowed his work by then.
Pan’s work remains undervalued, but it was an archetype of modern optogenetics. For example, a blind man had his vision partially restored with algal DNA and optogenetic stimulation in 2021. The emergence of new light-sensitive proteins and gene-editing methods have also led to many innovations. One of the most exciting applications of optogenetics on the horizon is curing the effects of addiction, which include constant fear, anxiety, and substance dependence.
At the Boston University Ramirez Lab, researchers have begun experimenting with alcohol use disorder (AUD), which affects over 14 million adults in the US alone. Principal investigator, Dr. Steve Ramirez, explained that his team began injecting mice with ethyl alcohol to induce a pathophysiological state similar to AUD patients. They then targeted the neurons responsible for the addiction-like fear, editing them to code for light sensitivity. Repeatedly turning that ganglion on and off, they diluted the mice’s emotional senses, curbing their addiction symptoms. Ramirez and his team have yet to replicate this process in humans, but these were promising results.
Although optogenetics does not yet afford complete neuronal control, the growing interest in neuro-biotechnology has illuminated exciting possibilities. Over time, we may record dreams or prevent neurodegenerative disorders altogether. The progress ahead for optogenetics will lead scientists to rival even the powers of comic book telepaths!
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My name is Okezue Bell, a STEM advocate, global speaker, RSI Scholar, International BioGENEius winner, WEF sustainability advisor, author/journalist, NASDAQ-honored entrepreneur, World Science Scholar, and high school student interested in all sorts of topics.