Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Applications of light: BRAINS

Grad school forces you to live life in a tiny bubble. You spend all your time constantly swamped with making progress on your research project and trying to publish something (anything) meaningful.  It can be difficult to keep up with much else: eating, sleeping, a social life... not to mention the important things like reading all the notable historical papers in your field and keeping up to date with current publications of your colleagues and competitors. All this makes it downright impossible to stay on top of advances in scientific fields outside your own. Who has the time?

Sometimes being a postdoc doesn't feel all that different. I wrapped-up my PhD earlier this year and despite a full-plate of postdoc responsibilities and a never-ending quest to publish, I'm consciously putting more effort into being engaged in the scientific community at large, including reading more general science publications. Though as a specialist in visible light-emitting devices, the articles that particularly catch my eye are any that describe applications of light.  (Pun intended, haha, sorry.)

I was so excited to learn a new word yesterday: Optogenetics.

photo by John Carnett for Popular Science

Optogenetics, a not-that-new term coined by Karl Deisseroth at Stanford, is a way of using light to precisely stimulate parts of the body.  It's done by embedding certain light-sensitive proteins into tissues or cells, which can activate the cells by exposing it to the correct wavelength of light.

You guys!  They can control a rat's brain with frikkin lasers! This made me spit out my drink and go: "WHAT. THAT'S AWESOME. SCIENCE IS SO COOL."

Watch this great 4 minute video from Nature that describes optogentics in more detail.

So far, optogenetic methods have already been used to make several advances in neurological research. Nature considered it so revolutionary, it was named Method of the Year in 2010.

Recently, Stanford scientists were able to use optogenetics to demonstrate that the hypocretin or orexin, a neuro-transmitter that regulates appetite, arousal, and wakefulness, has a big impact on the sleep to wake transition through the stimulation of neurons in the locus coeruleus, part of the brain that stimulates noradrenaline and is critical for arousal and wakefulness.  Neat!  Read the SciCurious article "Sleeping Beauty: magic or hypocretin?" over at Scientific American for more details. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.