Tomorrow, I will be speaking at the Marshal M. Weinberg Seminar on Optogenetic Manipulation of the Brain at the University of Michigan – not a subject I must admit that I am that familiar with. Fortunately, there are other speakers who will be doing much of the heavy-lifting, including Karl Deisseroth – a leading optogenetics researcher, and author of a recent in-depth article in Scientific American on controlling the brain with light. My role – I suspect – is to bring a broader social and technological perspective to the benefits and risks of this rapidly emerging field as part of the closing panel discussion – neatly titled “Mind Control: What do you think?”
Here, I must confess that I’m going to be relying an awful lot on the preceding talks to round off my education in optogenetics before I launch in. But I have been doing some preparatory work on optogenetics, and in particular the plausibility of its possible use in manipulating brain function at a sophisticated level.
By way of background, optogenetics is a relatively young field that revolves around the study and use of specific genetic sequences – opsins – to enable the modulation of cellular and sub-cellular processes in the presence of light. Its roots stem back to early research into optically-modulated biological processes in microorganisms. But it wasn’t until a number of fields began to converge that the possibility of utilizing these seemingly esoteric processes began to emerge.
For decades now, it has been known that some microorganisms have the ability to respond to light by producing proteins that switch or otherwise modify specific cellular processes. This might have remained a curiosity if it wasn’t for the increasing ability to cut and paste functional genetic sequences from one species to another, and the realization that to control many cell-level biological processes, fast, precisely timed pulses of light could provide a control mechanism that overcomes the limitations of electrical and chemical alternatives. The result has been the emergence of optogenetics as a well-defined field – in Deisseroth’s words
“the use of optics and genetics to control well-defined events within specific cells of living tissue”.
Optogenetics includes the discovery and insertion into cells of genes that enable them to respond in specific ways to light… Continue reading Optogenetics and mind control – on the borders of the plausible?