Beginnings In Optogenetics
Optogenetics is a novel field. Half brain interface, half genetic engineering. None the less, it is starting to make inroads as a means of non invasively writing data back to the brain.
To start with, a light sensitive protein was extracted from algae of all things. This protein os bonded with a virus as the 'payload', and injected into the target animal. One day this may be a human, but for now its strictly mice.
The virus propagates throughout the subject's brain, in the process slipping the new protein into every neuron it encounters. The virus doesn't harm the cells and cannot reproduce, it is just a delivery vector. The protein bonds with the nerve cells, making them light sensitive, a property they did not have before.
The next step is to shine light into the brain with precise fibre optic strands, such that each strand illuminates a small cluster of neurons, causing them to fire. Like playing notes on a piano, crude commands can thus be sent into the subject's brain. Essentially, it serves as an input signal.
So far, the commands have been used to precisely steer running mice, and cause flapping of wings in other small animals. The hope is, in humans, it might be able to trigger precise pathways in much the same manner, although preferably controlled by another part of the same person's brain rather than an outside source. Remote controlled humans is not a pleasant thought.
So far researchers have only experimented upon flies, rats, mice, monkeys and worms. Tests on humans are at least five years off, but tinkering with the brains of mice has already suggested a new way to treat Parkinson's disease in people.
"This allows us to really start to speak the language of the brain," says Karl Deisseroth, a psychiatrist and professor of bioengineering at Stanford University who is one of the pioneers of the method.