The Optogenetics Revolution

Since the advent of modern neuroscience, scientists have sought to understand how the billions of neurons in our brains act separately but in concert to create what we experience as learning, thinking, memory, and behavior. However, the endeavor to understand the intricacies of the functioning brain has long been limited by the difficulty of observing and manipulating neurons as they work together in a live, behaving animal.

Today, the field of optogenetics has changed all that. Optogenetics allows researchers to insert light-sensitive molecules, called opsins, into specific populations of neurons. Then, with light beamed in through fiber optic strands, researchers can turn those neurons on or off with millisecond precision.

In the current issue of Columbia Medicine, Keely Savoie presents an overview of this burgeoning field—from the first demonstration, a decade ago, that opsins could be used to switch neurons on with a pulse of light, to current thinking on the potential of optogenetics to transform our ability to understand the brain.

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