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Using unconventional therapies to troubleshoot the brain

Brain scientists are employing a wide range of approaches to diagnose and treat neurological conditions such as depression, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's. An article in the latest issue of Discover magazine features five of the more unusual techniques, including research on optogenetics technology at Stanford.

Jane Bosveld writes:

Someday intractable brain disorders - such as severe Parkinson's disease, extreme depression, and perhaps even schizophrenian - could be treated with a flashing light implanted in the brain to help correct the firing of disease-related neurons. Even if this technique proves too invasive for routine use, it may inspire new, more precise drugs that affect only the neurons involved in a disease. Good-bye side effects; hello optogenetics.

Identifying specific clusters of faulty neurons is difficult, says Karl Deisseroth, [MD, PhD], a psychiatrist and bioengineering researcher at Stanford University who has pioneered the optogenetics technique. Moreover, the neural therapies currently available - psychoactive drugs and stimulators that send electric current deep into the brain - are blunt instruments. "They affect all brain cells, not just the ones that are involved in the disorder," he says.

Optogenetics circumvents these problems by using light to control the activity of specific sets of neurons.

In the video above, Deisseroth gives an overview of his lab's groundbreaking research in optogenetics. His work on Parkinson's is also discussed in this 2009 article.

Photo by stephenphampshire

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