Will we ever be able to understand the cacophonous chatter taking place among the 80,000,000 neurons in our brains? Ofer Yizhar and his group in the Neurobiology Department at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel, have taken a large step in this direction with a research method that can provide scientists with targeted control over vital parts of the brain's communications.
Yizhar works in the relatively new field of optogenetics, in which scientists use genetic engineering and laser light in thin optical fibers to investigate the living brain. With these tools, researchers can modulate and control the activities of nerve circuits in the brain, and thus begin to unravel the networks of links and nodes in its communications systems.
Yizhar particularly is interested in the long-distance communications between nerve cells in different areas of the brain. 'The coordination between different brain systems is vital to the normal functioning of the brain.
"If we can understand the extended lines of communication between cells that are in the different regions of the brain--some of them quite far from one another--we might be able, in the future, to understand the changes that take place in the brain in diseases such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. Because we do not have an understanding of these diseases on a functional level, we are sorely lacking good ways to treat ihem."
Optogenetics involves inserting a gene for a light-sensitive protein into the neurons...