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  • Lasers Induce Brain Waves
Apr 2009
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., April 27, 2009 – By shining laser light directly onto the brains of mice, researchers are inducing gamma brain waves, those believed to be crucial to consciousness, attention, learning and memory.

MIT researchers and colleagues are taking advantage of a newly developed technology known as optogenetics, which combines genetic engineering with light to manipulate the activity of individual nerve cells.

The research helps explain how the brain produces gamma waves and provides new evidence of the role they play in regulating brain functions – insights that could someday lead to new treatments for a range of brain-related disorders. iStock_brain.jpg

“Gamma waves are known to be [disrupted] in people with schizophrenia and other psychiatric and neurological diseases,” explained the study’s co-author Li-Huei Tsai, professor of neuroscience at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. “This new tool will give us a great chance to probe the function of these circuits.”

Gamma oscillations reflect the synchronous activity of large interconnected networks of neurons, firing together at frequencies ranging from 20 to 80 cycles per second.

“These oscillations are thought to be controlled by a specific class of inhibitory cells known as fast-spiking interneurons,” said Jessica Cardin, co-lead author on the study and a postdoctoral fellow at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “But until now, a direct test of this idea was not possible.”

To determine which neurons are responsible for driving the oscillations, the researchers used a protein called channelrhodopsin-2 (ChR2), which can sensitize neurons to light.

“By combining several genetic tricks, we were able to express ChR2 in different classes of neurons, allowing us to manipulate their activity with precise timing via a laser and an optical fiber over the brain,” explained co-lead author Marie Carlén, a postdoctoral fellow at Picower.

The trick for inducing gamma waves was the selective activation of the “fast spiking” interneurons, named for their characteristic pattern of electrical activity. When these cells were driven with high-frequency laser pulses, the illuminated region of cortex started to produce gamma oscillations.

“We’ve shown for the first time that it is possible to induce a specific brain state by activating a specific cell type,” said co-author Christopher Moore, associate professor of neuroscience and an investigator in the McGovern Institute.

In contrast, no gamma oscillations were induced when the fast-spiking interneurons were activated at low frequencies, or when a different class of neurons was activated.

The authors further showed that these brain rhythms regulate the processing of sensory signals. They found that the brain’s response to a tactile stimulus was greater or smaller, depending on exactly where the stimulus occurred within the oscillation cycle.

“It supports the idea that these synchronous oscillations are important for controlling how we perceive stimuli,” Moore said. “Gamma rhythms might serve to make a sound louder, or a visual input brighter, all based on how these patterns regulate brain circuits.”

Because this new approach required a merger of expertise from neuroscience and molecular genetics, three laboratories contributed to its completion. 

Besides Tsai, Moore and Carlén of MIT, co-authors include Jessica Cardin, research affiliate at the McGovern Institute and the University of Pennsylvania, and Karl Deisseroth and Feng Zhang at Stanford University. Other co-authors were Konstantinos Meletis, a postdoctoral fellow at Picower, and Ulf Knoblich, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

The work was supported by NARSAD, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Thomas F. Peterson fund, the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, and the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.

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A discipline that combines optics and genetics to enable the use of light to stimulate and control cells in living tissue, typically neurons, which have been genetically modified to respond to light. Only the cells that have been modified to include light-sensitive proteins will be under control of the light. The ability to selectively target cells gives researchers precise control. Using light to control the excitation, inhibition and signaling pathways of specific cells or groups of cells...
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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