blocking anxiety and stress with light pulses -- 5/15/19

Today's selection -- from Evolving Ourselves by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans. Using light to overcome PTSD:

"One way to reset your brain circuits, even today, is through elec­troshocks. Or you can saturate your entire brain in a chemical soup of antidepressants, stimulants, and seizure moderators. [Ed] Boyden, [an American neuroscientist at MIT] took one look at this flailing around in the medical community and, instead of waiting for the right instruments to be built, he began to do what any physicist would do: He quit speculating and built new technologies to really understand what is occurring inside the brain, so he could measure and act accordingly as real data began to flow....

"[Through his work,] soon researchers were placing microscopically thin strands of optic fibers near living brain cells and watching minute flashes of light as individual brain cells turned on and off. This new method, known as optogenetics, means one can watch and map, in real time, what is happening inside a brain -- exactly which neurons are active when an animal moves, eats, smells, or learns. ... All this provides an increas­ingly accurate set of blueprints as to what takes place inside each brain cell, networks of cells, and brain regions. And, just as occurs in phys­ics, new machines and new technologies often provide answers to some of the most basic of questions: What kinds of neurons are in each region of the brain? How do they connect? Which behaviors are they linked with? New atlases now compare how particular brain regions interact and how entire classes of brain cells work.

Three primary components in the application of optogenetics are as follows.

"One surprising and particularly exciting development is that opsin-transmitting light-encoded information does not just map the brain; the system can carry instructions into the brain. Using lasers and fiber optics, Boyden's lab can get mice to move in a particular way, feel particular things, or forget traumas. What began as a map­ping activity, a technique designed to query the brain, ended up birthing a way to instruct and control parts of the brain.

"It goes way beyond mice. By 2012, using multiple colors of light and patterns, two groups of researchers demonstrated that one could use minimally invasive methods to alter primate behaviors.' Light could stimulate their neurons in such a way that the animals reacted faster. These discoveries could potentially alter how we treat various mental illnesses in the future; after mapping the active neurons in the brain of a mouse with post-traumatic stress, for example, Boy­den's team could make an educated guess as to which specific regions of brain cells remembered and reflected the trauma. They then used fiber optics to stimulate or block specific neurons to see how the mouse responded. Eventually they figured out how to block anxiety and stress with light pulses. The next step was to try out the same technique on humans.

"One of the tragedies of the use of IEDs and other explosive weapons in war is that many soldiers suffer extreme physical trauma. Prior to our unnatural and extreme medical interventions, very few would have survived the kinds of wounds one commonly sees today in VA hospitals. Piecing bodies back together sometimes requires implanting electrodes in wounded warriors' brains to instruct their bodies in carrying out basic functions and commands. Because the retroviruses that deliver fluorescent proteins to brain cells are safe and effective, surgeons could someday implant fibers in the brains of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Then, by lighting up these specific cells and activating them, these disabled veterans could block PTSD symptoms."



Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans


Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Nonrandom Mutation are Changing Life on Earth


Penguin Group


Copyright 2015 by Juan Enriquez and Steven Gullans


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