What is optogenetics?
Optogenetics is basically a newly developed science which combines molecular biology and light stimulation to control a population of cells. MIT's Ed Boyden is one of the principal inventors of optogenetics. Read about him here. Along with Dr. Karl Deisseroth, Boyden is responsible for seminal work in the field of optogenetics.
New eyes: to restore vision
For those who suffer from blindness due to retinitis pigmentosa, Boyden is anxious to transfer the results and benefits of his experiments from mice to humans. Mutations causing retinitis pigmentosa lead to the eventual destruction of light sensitive cells (photoreceptors) in the human eye. These photoreceptors are basically of two types: rods and cones. Non-functioning rods and cones cannot convert light into electrical signals. Without these necessary electrical signals, the brain cannot interpret visual information from the retina. According to MIT news,
Optogenetics offers the ability to bypass damaged photoreceptors. The technology involves genetically engineering other types of cells to respond to light by adding genes that code for proteins called channelrhodopsins, which normally sit in the photoreceptor cell membrane.
Among other things, optogenetics is also facilitating further study into the field of neuroscience. Boyden hopes that his continued research will eventually help soldiers suffering from PTSD. Here's a fascinating article detailing how scientists (using optogenetics) have used light to stimulate parts of the brains of mice to study which brain structures link memory to emotion. Of course, experiments have only been done on mice so far, but scientists are hopeful that the field of optogenetics holds exciting, future possibilities for humans.
Optogenetics is a technology that allows researches to activate an ion channel with light. By taking receptors found in the eye that normally are activated by light and fusing them to DNA of other ion channels researchers are able to get custom made (recombinant) ion channels that are controllable. This has greatly expanded the field of neuroscience since neurons send signals in the form of electrical impulse mediated by ion channels.