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Optogenetics' pioneer calls for a new perspective on the future of medical research

Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, a pioneer of optogenetics and rising "rock star" of the scientific world, spoke Thursday night as part of Stanford’s Summer Science Lecture Series. Throughout the lecture, Deisseroth emphasized two points in particular: first, psychiatric disorders' mysterious nature means that research still has a long way to go, and second, the best way to zero in on solutions to such medical mysteries is to fund research of all kinds.

Previous work on psychiatric disorders has mostly concerned chemicals in the brain and medications affecting these chemicals. Yet despite the fact that psychiatric disorders like anxiety are often popularly referred to as “chemical imbalances,” Deisseroth explained, our mastery of these chemicals have offered minimal insight into what causes these disorders or how to cure them. The driving idea behind optogenetics is that chemicals are not the only players in neural function: the brain is essentially an electrical device, and bad circuitry may play an essential role in understanding and treating psychiatric disorders.

Due to their complexity and to the total lack of information about what causes them, said Deisseroth, psychiatric disorders can go neglected and misunderstood. But even though we barely understand illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety, such disorders are both real and potentially devastating. Meanwhile, we know nothing about the physiological details of unarguably life-shattering diseases like autism and schizophrenia, let alone what patients’ experience is like. That’s why, even though optogenetics has the potential to lead to revolutionary treatments for psychiatric and behavioral disorders, Deisseroth said he’d be content if optogenetics remained what it is now: a research tool capable of providing scientists with a better understanding of the brain, and psychiatrists with a better understanding of their patients.

Deisseroth's talk also included a call to action addressed to researchers and research supporters alike. More and more, people are pushing for more applied research directly relating to curing known diseases, and some believe that this is the only research that should receive funding. But, Deisseroth emphasized, many discoveries including optogenetics were founded on decades of research generally driven by researchers’ personal interests rather than potential applications. If a rule had existed that would only fund research framed in terms of disease models, optogenetics would never have existed.

“We are so early in our long march towards our understanding of the world that it would be the height of narcissism to think that we know what to study,” said Deisseroth, who suggested that researchers should be encouraged to do work pertaining to their interests as well as their field of study. “All we know is that the world is incredibly complicated and incredibly cool.”

The Stanford Summer Science Lecture Series is free and open to the public. The next event will be on July 14 on the lawn outside the Cantor Arts Center.

Previously: Why drug development is time consuming and expensive (hint: it’s hard) , Stanford Summer Science Lecture Series in full swing, Optogenetics: Offering new insights into brain disorders, and Using light to better understand mental illness

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