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"No Brainer" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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Neuroscientists at MIT have developed a powerful new class of tools to reversibly shut down brain activity using different colors of light. When targeted to specific neurons, these tools could potentially lead to new treatments for the abnormal brain activity.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Stop Lights on the Neural Highway. (SOUND EFFECT: traffic -- tires screech)

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

Certain conditions such as Parkinson's, epilepsy, chronic pain and brain injuries are associated with abnormal brain activity. Up to now most treatments have dealt with stimulating that activity.

Researchers at MIT are looking at what may be a better way -- by selectively silencing certain brain activity -- and they've come up with an 'enlightened' method of doing it -- turning off specific brain circuits using light. (SOUND EFFECT: light switch)

The team found a type of protein that, when inserted into neurons (brain cells), allows the cells to be turned off by rays of yellow-green light.

When the scientists bathe the entire brain in the light (through the use of optical fibers), areas that don't have the light-sensitive proteins continue as normal -- but the light causes cells that are packing the proteins to pump protons out of them -- lowering the cells' voltage, and safely and effectively preventing them from firing.

This 'optogenetic' technique has been used since 2005 to stimulate activity, but this is the first time it's ever been used to stop it.

The method shows promise for the treatment of some of our most serious brain disorders. So far it's only been demonstrated with mice -- the team will turn its attention to monkeys next.

Hey, I can use light to switch off parts of my brain -- it's called "TV."

"The Discovery Files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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