Neural Light Show: Scientists Use Genetics to Map and Control Brain Functions

A clever combination of optics and genetics is allowing neuroscientists to identify and control brain circuits with unprecedented precision
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Alfred T. Kamajian

 In 1937 the great neuroscientist Sir Charles Scott Sherrington of the University of Oxford laid out what would become a classic description of the brain at work. He imagined points of light signaling the activity of nerve cells and their connections. During deep sleep, he proposed, only a few remote parts of the brain would twinkle, giving the organ the appearance of a starry night sky. But at awakening, “it is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance,” Sherrington reflected. “Swiftly the head-mass becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns.”

Although Sherrington probably did not realize it at the time, his poetic metaphor contained an important scientific idea: that of the brain revealing its inner workings optically. Understanding how neurons work together to generate thoughts and behavior remains one of the most difficult open problems in all of biology, largely because scientists generally cannot see whole neural circuits in action. The standard approach of probing one or two neurons with electrodes reveals only tiny fragments of a much bigger puzzle, with too many pieces missing to guess the full picture. But if one could watch neurons communicate, one might be able to deduce how brain circuits are laid out and how they function. This alluring notion has inspired neuroscientists to attempt to realize Sherrington’s vision.

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