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A 'traffic light' for neurons means 'go' for improving brain research

Every thought, feeling and action originates from the electrical signals emitted by diverse brain cells enmeshed in a tangle of circuits. At this fundamental level, scientists struggle to explain the mind. Worse yet, they have lacked tools to understand what's going wrong in patients with ailments such as depression or Parkinson's disease. New Stanford-led research published in the April 5 issue of Nature describes a technique to directly control brain cell activity with light. It is a novel means for experimenting with neural circuits and could eventually lead to therapies for some disorders.

"This accomplishment is a key step toward the important goal of mapping neural circuit dynamics on a millisecond timescale to see if impairments in these dynamics underlie severe psychiatric symptoms," said National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Elias A. Zerhouni. "The work is also a prime example of the highly innovative approaches to major challenges in biomedical research that we support through the NIH Director's Pioneer Award program."

Karl Deisseroth, an assistant professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry who led the research group that authored the paper, received the NIH award in 2005.

"This research provides a tool that we didn't have before, which is precise on-or-off control over specific neural cells in living creatures and intact circuits," says Deisseroth, whose Stanford research group collaborated with researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics, the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt and the University of Wrzburg in Germany. "This gives us the power to ask what the causal role of specific cell types is in neural circuit function."

Knowing the effects that different neurons have could ultimately help researchers figure out the workings of healthy and unhealthy brain circuits, explains graduate student Feng Zhang, a lead author of the paper along with Stanford postdoctoral scholar Li-Ping
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Contact: David Orenstein
davidjo@stanford.edu
650-736-2245
Stanford University
4-Apr-2007


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