Optogenetics — Achieving Mind Control With Science

In this article, you’ll learn:

  1. The brain and what optogenetics is
  2. How is optogenetics currently used
  3. The future of optogenetics. What problems can it conquer?
  4. Conclusion — everything you learned

How the brain works and what on earth is optogenetics?

The word “optogenetics” sounds all fancy and complicated but it boils down to one phrase. Mind control.

Wait, hold up, mind control?

Yes, you read that right but let’s take a step back and start with the basics. Your brain is in charge of your mind which means in order to mind control, scientists need to understand how the brain works.

The brain is a complicated organ controlling the functions of a living object. The human brain controls behaviours, emotions, thoughts, memories, and basically everything else that makes a human — human. But now how exactly does it control, let’s say, what your body is doing?

Neurons. Neurons are a type of cell densely packed inside the brain. There are over 85 billion neurons in the human brain and they are all interconnected like like a web. The web is often referred to as a network. The neurons communicate to each other by sending messages using electricity. Neuron communication is almost like wires. Electricity flow through the wires in order to power something just like how electricity flows through neurons to signal the body to do something.

Wait, now how exactly are these electrical signals sent? To start off, there are cell membranes for each neuron. Cell membranes are like a shield protecting each cell. On both sides of the “shield”, there are electrically charged ions. Ions are atoms with either a negative or positive charge because they either lost or gained an electron. The ions on both side form what is called an electrical gradient, where some ions are negative and others are positive. This gradient causes the ions to move because they want to “join forces” and become neutrally charged. In order for the ions to “join forces”, the ion channel, a tunnel inside the cell membrane must open for ions to pass through. When the ion channel opens, the ions will move around, shifting the original electrical charge. The shift in charge causes signals to go down the neuron and into another neuron.

All the signal transmissions are the key to behaviours and emotions. They are so crucial that scientists believe most, if not all brain disorders are caused by deficit in the signal transmissions process.

Now at this point, you’re probably sick of all the “brain talk”. Apologies, but with the basics aside, let’s finally get to real deal. Optogenetics.

In short, optogenetics is a technique to control individual neurons within the brain with the help of light. Scientists have longed to control each individual neuron since it will tell them what each neuron does. Knowing the purpose of each neuron brings science closer to developing cures for brain disorders as they can discover, target, and heal the specific neuron causing problems.

With optogenetics, targeting specific neurons finally became possible. How? Light and algae. In the early 2000s, scientists discovered a protein called channelrhodopsin, a light sensitive ion channel produced by algae. The channelrhodopsin channel opens in response to light and closes when there is no light present.

The discovery of such a protein was revolutionary. Scientist put one and one together and realized that channelrhodopsin can be placed inside the brains neurons and control the transmission of electrical signals. After the initial discovery, scientist worked hard to create a friendly virus that attaches channelrhodopsin to neurons. Since channelrhodosphin opens with light, neruons with channelrhodosphin can be controlled to open and close with light. This way, light will control whether the electrical signals of the neurons can pass through or not! In other words, light controls neurons that control behaviours.

All of these discoveries are beyond incredible because they are high precision. Light can precisely and quickly shine on one neuron to open and close its pathway and so scientists can percisely “turn on and off” specific neurons to experiment what they are in control of.

The takeaway: Inside the brain, there are billions of neurons that control different behaviours. Optogenetics is a newfound strategy used to control each individual neuron by using light to open and close the ion channels. Opening and closing the ion channel controls whether brain signals can pass through which controls behaviours.

How is optogenetics being used:

Currently, the optogenetics technology is still relatively new since it has only been discovered recently. Right now, scientists are mainly experimenting with optogenetics to learn bits and pieces about the brain. Universities and science labs with a neuroscience department have all been using it to learn and explore the brain because of optogenetics wide capabilities. Most of the optogenetic experiments are on mice but regardless, optogenetics discoveries already heavily impact the scientific world.

A few notable discoveries/experiments with optogenetics include:

  • restoring the vision of a blind mouse by finding the neurons in charge of retinal degeneration and reversing their damage.
  • discovering the “fear center” of the brain by turning on and off different neurons with optogenetics. Scientists are able to see a change in behaviour when closing off neurons and during the process, they found the area of neurons that control fear.
  • recovering lost memories by using optogenetics to discover the neurons that are in charge of memory recalling.
  • Mapping the brain of a mouse (Brain mapping is something highly praised in the neuroscience world as it is essential to discovering the exact functions of each part of the brain. Brain mapping is believed to be the solution to many neurological diseases in the future!) Optogenetics is helping to create brain maps because it allows scientists to test the functionality of each neuron when scientists turn on and off the channel with light.
  • Seeing how minor strokes affects the brain of mice. Scientists measured brain capabilities in different regions of a mouse’s brain before and after a minor stroke. This was achieved by using optogenetics to isolate different sections of the brain.

As seen by the discoveries above, optogenetics has made notable contributions to neuroscience even though it is only being used for experimentation. Scientists learning a lot just from testing on mice truly shows the potential of such technology.

The Future of Optogeneics, what problems can it conquer?:

Simple optogenetic experiments on mice have already shaken up neuroscience. It’s already crazy to imagine what the future of optogenetics holds once the technology advances.

According to many scientists, if optogenetic technologies continues to progress in the right direction, within no time, scientists will get the ability to map the entire brain and understand the abilities of each neuron. But what exactly does understanding the brain entail?

Well, the short answer, a lot. Right now, there is more unknown about the brain than there is known. This means scientists don’t have the answers to everything. Sure, they may know the name of a neuro disease because many people may have it but do they know the cause, the cure, or the best form of treatment? Unfortunately not. Neurological disorders are as the leading cause of disability yet not enough is known about the brain to cure these disorders. Mental health issues are often diagnosed based on qualitative observations since psychologists don’t know what part of the brain or what neurons cause each problem.

Now with optogenetics, scientists finally have a way to fully comprehend the brain and know what each individual neuron causes. With this information, not only will neurological disorders be more accurately diagnosed int the future but there will also be more effective treatments and cures.

What exact problems can be conquered? For starters, neurologists believe common mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and addiction can be efficiently treated (or even cured) by targeting the neuron that is causing the problem. An optogenetics experiment done at MIT found and turned off the neuron in charge of innate anxious behaviours of a mouse and sure enough — the mouse was no longer anxious. Another optogenetics experiment at Stanford University managed to relieve depression of a mouse by tweeking it’s neurons. All of this treatment will soon be possible for humans, thanks to optogenetics but the best part is that scientists predict none of these treatments will have any side effects unlike the current treatment medications! Wow.

On top of the huge impacts of optogenetics on mental health treatment, optogenetics may also cure diseases/disorders like Parkinson’s, blindness, epilepsy, chronic pain, and more in the near future. Scientists believe they can identify the neurons and alter them in a way so that the neurological disorder signals won’t be sent. Currently, human trials have already been approved and tested to restore human blindness caused by retinitis pigmentosa, a form of blindness caused by the degradation of cells. In the meantime, scientists are already testing in whatever way they can to identify the neurons in charge of different disorders while trying to close the channel of those neurons.

Optogenetics holds the ability to diagnose, treat, and cure millions (or even billions) of people within the next few decades. More reliable diagnosis and less invasive treatment plans are already showing up. Even better, according to neurologist Kay M. Tye, scientists might even be able to use optognetics to reprogram the brain to heal itself. Within no time, scientists will discover more effective treatments for all the neurological disorders.

Key takeaway: Optogenetics is capable of more than imaginable in the future. Cures for mental health disorders and neurological conditions can be discovered and scientists may even get the abilities to program the brain to heal itself.

Conclusion:

Now that you’ve read about the science of mind control, it sounds more believable doesn’t it? Next time, tell someone light + algae can change the signals in their brain and see their face of disbelief.

Optogenetic or “mind control” is the technology defining the future of neuroscience. With some more advancement, all the unknows of the brain will be unlocked and thousands of disorders will have a cure. Humanity is capable of unlocking greatness and soon enough, great discoveries will be unlocked as scientists understand the ins and outs of optogenetics.

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