Optogenetics holds about as much scientific promise as many other rapidly advancing technologies combined. Certain genes have a distinct sensitivity to light. This field takes advantage of those genes in order to control or manipulate neurons in the brain. We don’t often hear about optogenetics because it’s a complex subject and we don’t like to discuss the things we don’t understand.
But really, who cares?
You don’t need to understand how cancer works to know it’s bad for you. You don’t need to understand how a car works to know it takes you from place to place. And you don’t need to understand anything about the mind of a Nazi to know you should stay away from him.
If you’d like a short explanation anyway, then watch this video. If not, then skip ahead!
Okay, so what do I need to know about optogenetics?
Great, so maybe you understand optogenetics and maybe you don’t. What’s really important are the benefits that the studies could provide us in the future. Here are a few of the most promising:
We already know that optogenetics can be used to treat cocaine addiction in mice. The same effects have been observed with other impulse-related diseases such as binge eating. Drugs derived from this type of research could one day help us better regulate our biological clocks. In order to test new treatments and drugs on humans, gene therapy is required. This is still a dangerous area of medicine, and the FDA hasn’t yet gone anywhere near it.
Luckily, this will likely spur growth of technology in gene therapy as well (optogenetics is technically a form of this already). Gene therapy could lead to the end of cancer, genetic diseases, and any number of other human ailments. If we can perfect gene therapy techniques and bring this field of medicine to the mainstream, we could also extend our lives indefinitely!
Since optogenetics provides us knowledge about what certain neural pathways and cell structures do, it could help us gain a better understanding of the human brain and how it works. Needless to say, science is currently lacking in this department. But not for long! This and many other fields show signs of great progress.
Need to catch a few winks, but you’re suffering from insomnia? No problem. Scientists found that flooding certain groups of neurons with light can induce sleep. In mice, anyway. And we’re not talking about just any sleep. We’re talking REM sleep. Using optogenetics, we could all one day be dreaming every night.
In time, optogenetics could lead to an increased understanding of the human brain and better medicine, but these are only a few of the potential benefits. The science could lead to advancements across innumerable fields of science and technology.
What do you think?