The rise of optogenetics

Sept. 15, 2014
On average, a new study on optogenetics is reported every day. That's been the trend for the past two years.

On average, a new study on optogenetics is reported every day. That's been the trend for the past two years. According to PubMed, 359 research papers on optogenetics were published in 2013; this year through the end of August, it was 229.

When you consider that until 2010, only a dozen papers were published on optogenetics in total, that’s impressive.

Optogenetics, which uses light to control neuron activity, is highly intriguing—and a little unnerving. As with plenty of other technological developments, it carries opportunity for misuse. But in the history of humanity, technology has never been required for abusive treatment of our fellow humans. And, importantly, optogenetics' potential benefits are absolutely astounding.

Karl Deisseroth, the Stanford professor and psychiatrist who coined the term, has been heard to comment that optogenetics' impact on humans will be the facilitation of drug development for treatment of psychological disorders. Indeed, the past couple of months have brought news of studies that seem promising in this regard. We've seen reports of optogenetics being used in animal studies to:

1. Learn how memories become linked with emotions—and to show that it's possible to reverse the positive/negative emotional association of specific memories;1

2. Understand the dynamics of cellular signaling;2

3. Clarify the operation of the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN), which is linked to human brain disorders such as schizophrenia, autism, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD);3 and

4. Control muscle movement to the spinal cords of awake, alert animals.4

Clearly, each of these studies has important and exciting implications for treatment of disorder and injury in human subjects. Equally exciting, then, is the translation of optogenetics technology to the marketplace. As I write this, Strategies in Biophotonics is about to take place in Boston (Sept. 9-11), and the Innovators' Demo Stage, a late addition to the conference program, will feature a number of biophotonics-based technology demonstrations. Among these is Kendall Research Systems’ (Cambridge, MA) FireFly, an ultralight, wirelessly powered and controlled headstage system for chronic, freely behaving optogenetics research. The folks behind this company and technology are MIT professor Ed Boyden and technology entrepreneur Christian Wentz, who earned his PhD at MIT and founded both Kendall Research and another company, Cerenova.

Optogenetics is still in its infancy, but its hockey-stick growth trajectory portends an exciting future that we look forward to reporting.


1. R. L. Redondo et al., Nature, doi:10.1038/nature13725 (2014).

2. M. Grusch et al., EMBO J., 33, 1713–1726 (2014); doi:10.15252/embj.201387695.

3. M. M. Halassa et al., Cell, doi:10.1016/j.cell.2014.06.025 (2014).

4. V. Caggiano, M. Sur, and E. Bizzi, PLoS One, 9, 6, e100865 (2014); doi:10.1371/journal.pone.

About the Author

Barbara Gefvert | Editor-in-Chief, BioOptics World (2008-2020)

Barbara G. Gefvert has been a science and technology editor and writer since 1987, and served as editor in chief on multiple publications, including Sensors magazine for nearly a decade.

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