n a mere half-decade, the use of light to stimulate the brain has moved from basic science to the frontiers of bioengineering. By inserting into brain cells a light-sensitive protein originally found in swamp algae, engineers and scientists have begun to manipulate neurons with a dexterity that could soon vastly outstrip the capabilities of today’s electrical brain stimulation methods. This month, Patrick Degenaar reported early progress toward a non-invasive prosthetic retina that uses light to force retinal ganglion cells to fire on command, presented at the IEEE Biomedical Circuits and Systems conference.
The use of light to control neurons could enable significantly more powerful brain-machine interfaces. First, it allows biomedical engineers to activate chosen sets of neurons, not simply whatever cells happen to be near the stimulation site, as with electrodes. Light can also be used to inhibit a neuron’s firing, whereas electrodes can only stimulate. Most intriguingly of all, the engineering of light-triggered brain cells could begin to pave the way to a hybrid computer that uses an optical link to unite biological and silicon components.
- A Retinal Prosthesis Turned On By Light (spectrum.ieee.org)
- Neural Probe Stimulates Individual Brain Cells (medgadget.com)
- Now I See You (techreview.com)
- Escaping the Data Deluge from Brain-Machine Interfaces (spectrum.ieee.org)
- Blind mice can see where they run (newscientist.com)