A neural prosthesis that fires light into key parts of the brain to treat conditions such as Parkinson's disease and epilepsy could be possible following research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The light would turn individual brain cells that had been treated with gene therapy on and off. This technique is called optogenetics. The new MIT developed tool delivers light to the brain in three dimensions, opening the potential to explore entire neural circuits. While optogenetics is only a few years old, it’s estimated that thousands of scientists are already using this technology. In optogenetics, researchers first sensitise select cells in the brain to a particular colour of light. Then, by illuminating precise areas of the brain, they are able to selectively activate or deactivate the individual neurons that have been sensitised.
‘You can see neural activity in the brain that is associated with specific behaviours,’ said Edward Boyden, a synthetic biologist at MIT and co-lead researcher.
Optogenetics allows scientists to play a more active role in probing the brain's connections, to fire up one type of cell or deactivate another and then observe the effect on behaviour, such as quieting a seizure. The researchers describe their optogenetic device in a paper published in the most recent edition of Optical Society’s peer reviewed journal Optics Letters.