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Salk Scientists Create A Light Switch For Brain Proteins

Lei Wang (left) and Ji-Yong Kang (right) have proven that it's possible to manipulate brain biology using light.
Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Lei Wang (left) and Ji-Yong Kang (right) have proven that it's possible to manipulate brain biology using light.

Researchers at the Salk Institute in La Jolla have developed a new way to manipulate mouse brains using light. The new technique could help illuminate long-standing mysteries about brain biology.

Salk Scientists Create A Light Switch For Brain Proteins
Researchers at the Salk Institute in La Jolla have developed a new way to manipulate mouse brains using light. The new technique could help illuminate long-standing mysteries about brain biology.

In a paper published Wednesday, Lei Wang and his colleagues describe a way of using light to alter specific proteins inside neurons.

Wang said this technique could help answer the question, "What molecules are responsible for a particular behavior in neurons?"

Wang's work builds on a technique called optogenetics. The same way we use switches to turn on lights, neuroscientists use a kind of light switch to study the brain. By implanting an LED in the brains of mice, they can turn on individual neurons and observe what happens.

Wang said this new technique takes the same concept and refines it to a smaller scale. "Now we can control molecules instead of just controlling a cell," he explains. "If you want to completely understand neuronal function, you need to be able to control different proteins inside the neuron."

Wang predicts this technique will be useful to scientists involved the BRAIN Initiative, announced earlier this year by President Obama. He said now they have a more precise way to study the biology behind memory, disease and other brain functions.