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Innovation Almanac: Stanford's Benign Mind Control

Amazing technology may one day cure chronic nervous problems with the power of lasers.

 Dr. Karl Deisseroth.

Imagine this: One day, doctors will treat disorders as diverse and debilitating as schizophrenia, depression, and Parkinson’s disease not by saturating the brain with blunt-force pharmaceuticals or zapping it with electroshock, but with the speed and precision of a light beam.

This new field, called optogenetics and pioneered by Stanford researcher Karl Deisseroth, begins with a long-understood premise: some algae and bacteria produce proteins that react to light. Deisseroth’s innovation, realized after nearly a decade of work alongside a dream team of Stanford biology, physics, and computer science grad students, was to select the genes that make those light-sensitive proteins and patch them onto certain brain cells of living lab rats. Implant a small laser on the critter’s brain, and those targeted neurons—and the behaviors they correspond to—can be turned on or off at the flip of a light switch.

Of course, dystopian scenarios are easy to imagine. In one experiment, an unfortunate rodent was compelled to run in a counter-clockwise circle, head aglow. But in another, a gang of rats were optogenetically prevented from acting on their cocaine addiction. In yet another, he managed to “turn off” a lab rat’s innate anxiety about open spaces. Better than Xanax, for sure, as long as you ignore the weird glow.


Read More of Our Innovation Almanac:
Stanford's Benign Mind Control
The Forever Clock
Bacteria Mapper
Fire Station Health Care

Cree: Building the Future
No More Double Clicking
A Friendlier Vibrator
Social Networking for Disaster Prep

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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