Last update: September 17, 2022
By BrainMatters

Optogenetics is a relatively new method that makes it possible to use light to turn specific neurons on or off. This can be done ex vivo, i.e. in neurons in a petri dish, but also in living animals such as a fly or a mouse.

The technique makes use of several light-sensitive proteins that occur in nature. Channelrhodopsin2 (ChR2), for example, is a protein found in algae. ChR2 acts as an ion channel that opens as soon as blue light shines on it. By putting the gene of this protein into a virus and then injecting it into the brain of, say, a mouse, the neurons of this mouse receive this gene. The part of the neurons with the right build to express the gene will produce the protein.

Next, an optical cable is inserted into the mouse's brain, allowing light to be shone on the neurons. The moment blue light is turned on, the neurons containing ChR2 will become active. By using other proteins and other colors of light, neurons can be deactivated.

Author: Michelle Moerel (translated by Melanie Smekal)

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