The Brain with Light

The Brain with Light

In this web exclusive, the author offers a longer version of his December 2010 Scientific American article on how researchers can probe how the nervous system works in unprecedented detail, using a technique called optogenetics

Despite the enormous efforts of clinicians and researchers, our limited insight into psychiatric disease (the worldwide-leading cause of years of life lost to death or disability) hinders the search for cures and contributes to stigmatization. Clearly, we need new answers in psychiatry. But as philosopher of science Karl Popper might have said, before we can find the answers, we need the power to ask new questions. In other words, we need new technology.

Developing appropriate techniques is difficult, however, because the mammalian brain is beyond compare in its complexity. It is an intricate system in which tens of billions of intertwined neurons—with multitudinous distinct characteristics and wiring patterns—compute with precisely timed, millisecond-scale electrical signals, as well as with a rich diversity of biochemical messengers. Because of that complexity, neuroscientists lack a deep grasp of what the brain is really doing—of how specific activity patterns within specific brain cells ultimately give rise to thoughts, feelings and memories. By extension, we also do not know how the brain’s physical failures produce distinct psychiatric disorders such as depression or schizophrenia. The ruling paradigm of psychiatric disorders—casting them in terms of chemical imbalances and altered levels of neurotransmitters—does not do justice to the brain’s high-speed electrical neural circuitry. And psychiatric treatments have historically been largely serendipitous: helpful for many but rarely illuminating, and suffering from the same challenges as basic neuroscience.

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