Imagine a day when you can reprogram your brain with flashes of light. The future may be coming to your eyeballs sooner than you think.
Optogenetics is a method of using light to control cells in the brain. It can be used to alter behavior, model diseases, and maybe even one day, deliver drugs right where you need them. And now, it's wireless! With lasers!
With genetic engineering, we can design cells that respond to light (from lasers or LEDs) by activating or deactivating themselves or otherwise changing their functionality. The appeal of using light to alter cells is that we can turn light on and off at the speed of, you know, light, which allows us to keep up with the speeds at which things happen inside our cells. For example, neurons in the brain send signals to other neurons using electric spikes that occur in just a few milliseconds, but with lasers, it's possible to very precisely control (or disrupt) these messages, and this is what optogenetics is all about.
So what can optogenetics do for you? Well, in one example, researchers have found that they can use optogenetics to be able to drive neurons responsible for creating dopamine, and mice who had brain lasers (BRAIN LASERS!) tuned to stimulate those neurons started to act like they were on happy drugs. The same sort of technique has also been used to control awakeness in mice with narcolepsy.
Obviously, there's a lot of potential here, for both research and treatment. But even before we get to the point of giving humans brain lasers (BRAIN LASERS!), researchers have a lot more work to do figuring out just what other effects optogenetics might have on animals like mice. Problem is, when you have to run a bunch of fiber optic cables between your computer and the noggin of your mouse, that mouse tends to understandably not act much like a normal mouse.
Okay, that's not exactly downloading kung fu into your brain to face off against Laurence Fishburne.