Optogenetics: Medicine's next big thing?

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Scientists are looking at ways to control how neurons work; they are lighting up brains. (KFSN)

Your brain is made up of about 100 billion neurons. These special cells transmit important information throughout the body. Now scientists are looking at ways to control how neurons work; they are lighting up brains.

Like the popular song, Darcy Blake is 64 and living a life she never expected. Traveling the world...

"It's just amazing what life will do to you, and you never know what's going to happen tomorrow," Darcy Blake told ABC30.

...But also battling a neurological disease.

"I didn't think that I'd have Parkinson's," said Blake.

Blake was diagnosed six years ago. She had severe tremors until a procedure called deep brain stimulation stopped her symptoms.

Blake explained, "It was just a miracle!"

A new technology that could one day make brain surgery more precise; it's called optogenetics.

"Optogenetics is a form of gene therapy, where we put a gene into neurons, cells in the brain that control how your brain functions. Those genes allow the cells to become responsive to light," Michael Kaplitt, M.D., Ph.D., Neurosurgeon, Chief Scientific Officer of Circuit Therapeutics and Associate Professor of Neurological Surgery, Weil Cornell Medical College, told ABC30.

The light can actually turn off or activate key nerves in the brain, which could help doctors control how a single cell behaves. Here, a rat with light proteins in his brain freezes when the light is turn on, and moves when the light is switched off.

Dr. Kaplitt explained, "We have the ideal combination of incredible precision that has never been achievable before in human history with the ability to control it with this light sensitivity."

Researchers say it may one day help people with neurological conditions. Blake hopes it's the answer to stopping a disease that she battles every day.

Researchers are testing the technology in mice, and hope to start testing in humans in about two years. In addition to treating Parkinson's, they hope it could impact people with pain, depression, O.C.D., epilepsy and more.

For more information on this report, please contact:

Kevin Knight
(206) 451-4823

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