Updated on 20 November 2012
MIT develops fiber-optic 3-D optogenetic light switch device to study the brain
Singapore: Biologists and engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge have come up with a new tool for neuroscientists that delivers a thousand pin-pricks of light to a chunk of gray matter, smaller than a sugar cube in size.
The new fiber-optic device is the first tool that can deliver precise points of light to a 3-D section of living brain tissue. Scientists can use the new 3-D 'light switch' to better understand how the brain works. The researchers describe their device in a paper published 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.
Dr Ed Boyden, synthetic biologist, MIT, and co-lead researcher of the paper, is a pioneer of this emerging field. He said, "You can see neural activity in the brain that is associated with specific behaviors, but is it important? Or is it a passive copy of important activity located elsewhere in the brain? There's no way to know for sure if you just watch."
Unlike the previous, 1-D versions of this light-emitting device, the new tool delivers light to the brain in three dimensions, opening the potential to explore entire circuits within the brain. So far, the 3-D version has been tested in mice, although Dr Boyden and colleagues have used earlier optogenetic technologies with non-human primates as well.