IET AF Harvey prize lecture on controlling brain circuits with light
17 May 2012
Professor Ed Boyden of the MIT Media Lab and the MIT McGovern
Institute will be presenting the Institution of Engineering and
Technology AF Harvey Prize lecture on Optogenetics: controlling
brain circuits with light on 19 June at the IET headquarters in
Over a billion people worldwide suffer from a brain disorder —
stroke, depression, migraine, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, chronic pain,
blindness. Few of these disorders are effectively treatable by drugs
or neurosurgical procedures.
Part of the reason that these approaches often fail is that the
brain is a very complex, densely wired, computer circuit, made out
of heterogeneous cells, which vary in their shapes, molecular
composition, and patterns of connectivity.
Ideally we would be able to hone in on the precise circuits
within the brain that can best contribute to the remedy of disease,
and then use those circuits as drug targets — or as targets for
neurosurgeons to implant electrodes to improve symptoms.
To do this we’ve invented a new technology — the ability to
control specific cells, embedded within dense neural circuits, with
light. We do this by taking photosynthetic and photosensory proteins
— found throughout the tree of life, in plants, bacteria, fungi, and
other species — that convert light into electrical power.
Neurons compute using electricity, so if we can install these
proteins into specific cells, then those cells would become light
controllable, while their neighbours would remain
To do this, we use safe gene therapy viral vectors, currently
used in humans in gene therapy trials, to deliver the genes that
encode for these proteins to targeted neurons. Then we insert into
the brain (which doesn’t contain pain neurons) safe, compact optical
probes – for example, optical fibers attached to small LEDs or
lasers – to deliver light into the brain.
We are prototyping new kinds of therapies using the optical
control of specific cells, embedded within dense tissue, to control
the activity of those cells, to treat the disorder.