Turning on and off neural circuits
Optogenetics is a technique that combines genetics and optics to control neuronal activity, which interestingly, is all thanks to the study of pond algae. More specifically, it is based on the discovery of light-sensitive membrane channels within the algae that control movement in response to light. In optogenetics, genes that produce this light-sensitive membrane channel are inserted into neurons. When these channels are hit by light, they regulate the flow of positively charged ions into the cell, and the neurons actually fire. This allows scientists to study the function of specific neurons by turning them on and off with light under various conditions. Within the past decade, optogenetics has become a very powerful tool for discovering the functions of different types of neurons in the brain. It provides an outstanding level of precision since researchers can control defined events among different neuronal cells at defined times.