For neuroscientists, a new tool delivers a thousand pinpricks of light to a chunk of gray matter smaller than a sugar cube.
The new fiber-optic device, created by biologists and engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, is the first tool that can deliver precise points of light to a 3-D section of living brain tissue. The work is a step forward for a relatively new but promising technique that uses gene therapy to turn individual brain cells on and off with light.
Scientists can use the new 3-D "light switch" to better understand how the brain works. It might also be used one day to create neural prostheses that could treat conditions such as Parkinson's disease and epilepsy. The researchers describe their device in a paper published today in the Optical Society's (OSA) journal Optics Letters
The technique of manipulating neurons with light is only a few years old, but the authors estimate that thousands of scientists are already using this technology, called optogenetics, to study the brain. In optogenetics, researchers first sensitize select cells in the brain to a particular color of light. Then, by illuminating precise areas of the brain, they are able to selectively activate or deactivate the individual neurons that have been sensitized.
Ed Boyden, a synthetic biologist at MIT and co-lead researcher on the paper, is a pioneer of this emerging field, which he says offers the ability to probe connections in the brain.