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Thu December 26, 2013
Shots - Health News

Experimental Tool Uses Light To Tweak The Living Brain

Originally published on Mon December 30, 2013 8:09 am

When President Obama announced his BRAIN Initiative in April, he promised to give scientists "the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action."

An early version of one of those tools already exists, scientists say. It's a relatively new set of techniques called optogenetics that allows researchers to control the activity of brain cells using light.

"This is fantastic," says Elizabeth Hillman, a biomedical engineer at Columbia University. "We can turn things on, turn things off, read stuff out." In short, she says, it provides a way to observe and control what brain circuits are doing in real time in a living brain.

Eventually, optogenetics could not only help explain diseases like epilepsy and depression, but offer a way to treat them. But the technique needs some refinement before it can be used in people or in remote parts of the brain, Hillman says.

Until just a few years ago, research on living brains relied on technologies like functional MRI, which shows which areas of the brain are active during a particular task. When scientists wanted to switch on brain cells, they used a wire probe inserted into the brain.

All that changed in 2005, when a team at Stanford University showed how to control brain cells using light. "There was instant buzz about it," Hillman says. "People were sort of running around and saying, 'What is this thing, where can I get it, how can I do it?' " she says.

Instead of activating just one brain cell at a time with a probe, researchers had a way to cause large groups of cells to fire without touching them, Hillman says.

"You can select that very specific genetic cell type, and you can tell that specific cell type to react when you shine light on it," she says.

If you select the right type of motor neuron in a mouse, for example, you can make the mouse start running with the flick of a light switch. It's also possible to control brain cells involved in pain and fear and moods. So there's huge potential for both understanding the human brain and treating brain diseases.

First, though, scientists are going to have to overcome some big challenges, Hillman says. She outlined some of those challenges at a BRAIN Initiative meeting run by the Optical Society of America.

For one thing, Hillman says, when you use optogenetics, "You're actually altering the genes of the neurons." That's because most neurons don't normally respond to light. So you have to add genetic material to every brain cell you want to control. Scientists can do that in mice with genetic engineering, but that's not an option for people.

The other way to add genetic material is by infecting an animal with a virus that reprograms certain cells. This approach has been used in people, Hillman says, but carries enough risk that most optogenetic experiments in humans are probably still a long way off.

Another challenge for optogenetics, Hillman says, has to do with delivering light to cells deep in the brain. "It's really hard to get light to go deep," she says, "and we all know this just from trying to shine a flashlight through our hand."

Researchers are also finding that in some optogenetic experiments, light is reaching too many cells in the brain, says Hillel Adesnik from the University of California, Berkeley, who also spoke at the Optical Society meeting. "It's like slamming the thing with a hammer," Adesnik says.

So scientists are looking for ways to deliver light with less force and more precision. "One thing that's been very much discussed," Adesnik says, "is how we can control the cells one at a time, or 10 at a time, or 1,000 at a time — but extremely specifically."

Despite these challenges, researchers see huge potential for optogenetics. Already, they say, the techniques are changing our understanding of disorders such as epilepsy.

Scientists have known for a long time that epileptic seizures occur when brain cells start firing out of control. But they've been struggling to understand the role of brain cells called inhibitory neurons, which can reduce firing in other cells, Adesnik says.

"Prior to optogenetics, there was no way to control these neurons and test hypotheses," Adesnik says. Now, he says, scientists have shown that by altering that activity of inhibitory neurons in mice, it's possible to start and stop epileptic seizures.

The finding suggests that some day it may be possible to halt a person's epileptic seizure with a flash of light, Adesnik says. And by tweaking other networks in the brain, he says, doctors may be able to help people with Parkinson's disease, depression, or even schizophrenia.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

In 2013, President Obama put brain science on the national agenda. And today, we're going to look at some of the things his BRAIN initiative is trying to accomplish. Back in April, the president said one his goals was to help scientists whose research is being held back by technical obstacles.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The BRAIN Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember.

SIEGEL: NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on one of those tools that could help reveal the brain's secrets.

JON HAMIILTON, BYLINE: Studying the brain is a bit like studying a computer. You can't really understand how it works unless it's switched on and doing something. Elizabeth Hillman of Columbia University says that presents a big challenge for brain researchers.

ELIZABETH HILLMAN: If it has to be switched on and it has to be intact, how on Earth do you get the information out? We need tools. And I mean, really, that's the message of the BRAIN initiative.

HAMIILTON: Hillman says tools like fMRI scans can offer a glimpse of which brain cells are active during a task. And you can manipulate individual cells by placing wires in the brain, though that's usually limited to certain patients awaiting brain surgery. But until recently, Hillman says, there was no good way to study a specific type of brain cell in action or to tweak whole networks of cells. Hillman says all that changed in 2005, when a team at Stanford showed how to control brain cells using light.

HILLMAN: There was instant buzz about it. People were sort of running around and saying, what is this thing? Where can I get it? How can I do it? You know, this is fantastic.

HAMIILTON: The technique is called optogenetics. And Hillman says it provides a way to switch cells on and off in a living, functioning brain.

HILLMAN: Now you can select that very specific genetic cell type. And you can tell that specific cell type to react when you shine light on it.

HAMIILTON: So if you select the right type of motor neuron in a mouse, you can make the mouse start running with the flick of a light switch. It's also possible to control brain cells involved in pain and fear and moods. So there's huge potential for both understanding the human brain and treating brain diseases.

But Hillman says optogenetics is facing some big challenges before it's ready for people.

HILLMAN: So the first challenge, of course, is that you're actually altering the genes of the neurons.

HAMIILTON: That's because most neurons don't normally respond to light. So you have to add genetic material to every brain cell you want to control. Scientists can do that in mice with genetic engineering but that's not an option for people. The other way to add genetic material is by infecting an animal with a virus that reprograms certain cells. Hillman says this approach has been used in people, but carries risks that probably mean most human optogenetic experiments are a long way off.

Hillman says another challenge for optogenetics is delivering light to cells deep in the brain. She says it's easy to illuminate cells near the surface.

HILLMAN: There, we can do anything. We are the magicians of the superficial layers of the cortex. We can turn things on, turn things off, read stuff out. That's fine.

HAMIILTON: But she says it's a different story in the layers below.

HILLMAN: It's really hard to get light to go deep. And we all know this just from trying to sort of shine a flashlight through our hand, you know, you really don't see a lot of light coming through tissue.

HAMIILTON: Hillman spoke about that challenge at a BRAIN Initiative meeting this month at the Optical Society of America.

Another speaker was Hillel Adesnik from the University of California, Berkeley. He says a different problem occurs when light reaches too many cells in the brain.

HILLEL ADESNIK: If you want to say what is one of the major caveats of optogenetics, is that it's like slamming the thing with a hammer.

HAMIILTON: So Adesnik says scientists are looking for ways to deliver light with less force and more precision.

ADESNIK: One thing that's been very much discussed is how we can control the cells one at a time, or 10 at a time, or a thousand at a time, but extremely specifically.

HAMIILTON: Adesnik says you can see the potential of optogenetics if you look at its impact on a specific brain disorder, like epilepsy. Scientists know that epileptic seizures occur when brain cells start firing out of control. But Adesnik says they've been struggling to understand the role of so-called inhibitory neurons, which quiet down other brain cells.

ADESNIK: Prior to optogenetics, there was no way to control these neurons and test hypotheses.

HAMIILTON: Now, Adesnik says, there is - at least in mice.

ADESNIK: You can manipulate the activity of this inhibitory class of cell and either stop a seizure or, if you're studying epilepsy, per se, to initiate a seizure.

HAMIILTON: Adesnik says some day it may be possible to halt a person's epileptic seizure with a flash of light. And by tweaking other networks in the brain, he says, doctors may be able to help people with Parkinson's disease, depression or even schizophrenia.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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