Cure Anxiety With Optogenetics
This game them hope that in the future, people will no longer have to take pills or psychotherapy in order to take care of their anxiety problems. Dr. Karl Deisseroth, a psychiatrist and researcher at Stanford, the leader of the study, resorted to a new field in the domain of technology, called optogenetics in order to take care of the anxiety problems in the mice. Thanks to the optogenetics, the scientists were able to control various electrical impulses form the brain, by using various neurons which they carefully selected. The scientists made these neurons to be sensitive to light. Then they used optical fibers, and with the aid of the fibers they flashed blue light on a specific neural pathway in the amygdala. This region from the brain controls emotions. The mice got rid of their anxiety, and they were bolder and more courageous.
Of course, this does not mean that the human testing will start soon. However, the scientists are very thrilled by the optogenetics because it allows them to see the way in which certain regions of the brain work. They are able to control these regions, and thus they are able to find out more about the way in which various disorders work. Mice are very different than humans, but both of the brains have similar commonalities. In fact all the mammalian species have similar brain patterns. David Barlow, founder of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, said that even of the finding is important, the scientists should not be too excited about it. He said that even if the researchers were able to reduce the anxiety levels of the mice with a single switch, they should take in consideration the fact that other processes might be affected as well. Dr. Deisseroth’s team tested the light in different manners, and when the light covered a broader area of the brain, the effect was eliminated, and the mice suffered from anxiety once again.
Because of this the researchers believe that some of the current treatments against anxiety could in fact be the reason why so many people who take them suffer from terrible side effects. David Anderson, a professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology who also does research using optogenetics, said that the process is very dangerous and difficult to master. It is very important to know exactly what parts of the brain need to be illuminated, because if other parts receive the light, then things can go very wrong. Anderson said that it is very likely that the numerous psychiatric disorders are caused by various factors, not just by the chemical imbalance in the brain. Currently it is believed that the reason why people become mentally ill is because of the dopamine concentrations which sometimes get too high, or too low. Anderson believes that disorders at certain circuits from the brain are to blame as well.
Because of this, the optogenetics might be the answer for some of the biggest mental illnesses. The ones who engage in these operations might be able to control the circuits with full precision, and thus, they could take care of the mental illness. Dr. Deisseroth stated that it will take years before these methods could be used on humans, and that it is also possible that such a thing will never happen. The process is pretty complicated, and many people might not agree with it. The process might become dangerous, and it might lead to complications. The scientists have to find a protein found in photosensitive organisms which can detect light, called “opsins”. Then they take the opsin and they insert it in one of the brain neurons. Once it is in the neuron, the opsin becomes part of the organism, and then it is able to conduct electric currents. Each of them responds to different stimuli in a different manner: some respond by becoming active, other by shutting down, and so on. Then the researchers use fiber wire in order to send light directly into the correct spot from the brain.
Thanks to this, the researchers can control the connections which take place in the brain, not just observe them. Dr. Deisseroth said that this field is very different than the imaging one. In this case, they use the light in order to give certain orders, not only to inspect certain things. In some of the early experiments, the researchers proved that they can control mice and worms as if by remote control. Dr. Amit Etkin, a Stanford psychiatrist, wants to use the discoveries which were made in the case of the mice, and to apply them in the case of the humans. Dr. Jaimie Henderson has used a revolutionary system in order to treat Parkinson in more than 600 patients. He has inserted electrodes in the brains of these patients, and thus the shaking is eliminated. However, they have terrible side effects because it is very likely that other areas of the brain are affected by the electrodes. Dr. Henderson said that he intends to find a way of creating only the positive effects of the electrodes and not the negative ones too.
The electrodes are pretty dangerous as they could cause life threatening hemorrhage, and so on. A better option would be to stimulate the surface of the brain, but the researchers could not find a way of doing it yet. Some researchers have started using this treatment method on primates, in order to see if it is achievable. In the case of the humans, this method could be extremely effective. For example in the case of the ones who suffer from epilepsy, the light could be used in order to shut down an entire brain circuit. Dr. Deisseroth treats patients with depression and autism, and he hopes that the optogenetics will be beneficial for them. These people are often ignored and judged by the other ones because they behave in a different manner from a physical point of view.11