A technique that exposes specific neurons to light in order to modify neural activity in discrete brain areas, optogenetics is promising for the development of novel therapies for a wide range of psychiatric disorders. The method has been the subject of substantial interest since its introduction—and recently has helped both novice and pioneering researchers win awards.
A project that uses optogenetics to map dopamine circuits in the prefrontal cortex won the top Addiction Science Award at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), a competition for high school students. The award-winning researcher, John Edward Solder, 18, is a senior at Staples High School (Westport, CT). He demonstrated an ability to specifically control behavioral timing in mice that were genetically modified to activate dopamine neurons in the prefrontal cortex in response to light stimulus.
"This young scientist used optogenetics to directly activate dopamine neurons in the prefrontal cortex to influence behavior in the mouse, providing a proof of principle for an approach that could be used one day to restore disease-impaired functions in the brain," says NIDA Director Dr. Nora D. Volkow. "His work highlights the versatility of the optogenetic technique for mapping out the circuits that underlie discrete behaviors and that are disrupted in brain disorders that involve the prefrontal cortex, including Parkinson's disease, addiction, and schizophrenia."
When Volkow says that Solder's "impressive command of the principles, mechanics, and implications of this promising technology should enable him to make significant and long-lasting contributions to the field of neuroscience," maybe she has in mind contributions like those of Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT; Cambridge, MA) professor Ed Boyden, who recently was honored with the first-ever A. F. Harvey engineering research prize from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET; Stevenage, England)—an award that honors individuals for outstanding achievements and promising future research—for his high-impact work in optogenetics.
Boyden is the Benesse Career Development Professor and Associate Professor of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the MIT Media Lab and the MIT McGovern Institute. There, he leads the Synthetic Neurobiology Group, which develops optogenetic tools for controlling and observing neurons with light, to understand how cognition and emotion arise from brain network operation, as well as to enable systematic repair of intractable brain disorders such as epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and chronic pain.