Dr. Karl Deisseroth.
Imagine this: One day, doctors will treat disorders as diverse and debilitating as schizophrenia, depression, and Parkinson’s disease not by saturating the brain with blunt-force pharmaceuticals or zapping it with electroshock, but with the speed and precision of a light beam.
This new field, called optogenetics and pioneered by Stanford researcher Karl Deisseroth, begins with a long-understood premise: some algae and bacteria produce proteins that react to light. Deisseroth’s innovation, realized after nearly a decade of work alongside a dream team of Stanford biology, physics, and computer science grad students, was to select the genes that make those light-sensitive proteins and patch them onto certain brain cells of living lab rats. Implant a small laser on the critter’s brain, and those targeted neurons—and the behaviors they correspond to—can be turned on or off at the flip of a light switch.
Of course, dystopian scenarios are easy to imagine. In one experiment, an unfortunate rodent was compelled to run in a counter-clockwise circle, head aglow. But in another, a gang of rats were optogenetically prevented from acting on their cocaine addiction. In yet another, he managed to “turn off” a lab rat’s innate anxiety about open spaces. Better than Xanax, for sure, as long as you ignore the weird glow.
Read More of Our Innovation Almanac:
Stanford's Benign Mind Control
The Forever Clock
Fire Station Health Care
Cree: Building the Future
No More Double Clicking
A Friendlier Vibrator
Social Networking for Disaster Prep
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of San Francisco.