By targeting neurons in the brain of a mouse with a laser, scientists can manipulate the behavior of that mouse. By using that technique, researchers were able to increase the rate at which a mouse drank a milkshake, but applications of this method will hopefully allow researchers to map the brain with more precision than is currently possible.
Mice that had been genetically altered to have light-sensitive neurons in an area of the brain that perceives and reacts to rewards, the orbitofrontal cortex, were used. Neuroscientists from Stanford University reported at the 2016 annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego, that this technique, optogenetics, could activate a sequence of cells and affect behavior.
Standard methods in optogenetics activate clusters of cells, so optogenetics applications will have to be refined so they target only individual neurons. In this work, the investigators used a device to gain that fine targeting precision. Beyond brain mapping, it could one day in the distant future, be possible to use optogenetics to alter neural patterns to aid people struggling with addiction or post-traumatic stress disorder.