Scientists have been able to affect the behavior of a primate using optogenetics—a technique by which genetically modified neurons are made to fire with light!To control the electrical firing of a neuron, scientists use a virus to deliver a gene into brain cells. The gene is designed to produce a light-responsive protein.Depending on the type of light-sensitive protein used, this genetic modification will either activate or silence a neuron in response to a specific color of light, delivered via optical fibers inserted into the brain.
The seven-year-old field of optogenetics has given neuroscientists a more precise tool to examine the connections between the groups of neurons that set up neuronal circuits. These brain circuits control behaviors such as movement and emotion and, when faulty, can lead to diseases ranging from depression to Parkinson’s.
The behavior studied in today’s published report is quite subtle: two monkeys were trained to purposefully move their eyes to a target on a screen when given a cue. But when the relevant optogenetically ready modified neurons were stimulated by light from optical fibers inserted into their brains, the neuronal circuit responsible was sped up, and the monkeys were able to complete this task faster.
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