A Light Switch to Turn Specific Neurons On and Off

Ed Boyden is creating new brains. A pioneer in the field of optogenetics, he is the founder and principal investigator of the synthetic neurobiology group at the MIT Media Lab, which invents technologies to reveal how cognition and emotion arise from brain networks — and to enable systematic repair of disorders such as epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd).

Using a combination of lasers and genetic engineering, Boyden’s lab implants brains with optical fibers that allow them to activate special proteins in specific neurons and see their connections. In addition to helping create detailed maps of brain circuitry, the engineering of these cells has been used to cure blindness in mice, and could point the way to cures for Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease. On the horizon: ways of connecting to the brain via prosthetics.

By inserting genes for light-sensitive proteins into brain cells, neurons can be selectively activated or de-activated with fiber-optic implants. Check out Boyden’s demonstration at TED2011 below.