Optogenetics is a technique where scientists use pulses of light to switch genetically altered cells on and off. The Seattle Times (August 28th, 2014) addressed an interesting finding by scientists at MIT who used this technique (“Flipping from Fearful to Cheerful”). First, they selectively targeted cells of male mice for either a negative memory representation (receiving a mild electric shock to the foot), or positive memory representation (spending time with female mice). Second, they placed the mice with the negative/positive experience into the opposite situation. That is, they placed mice that received shock into a cage with female mice. Third, light was used to activate memories while in a new environment. To their astonishment, they found that unhappy memories became less negative, and happy memories less positive.
That targeting a specific cell by optogenetics renders a negative memory less threatening suggests enormous possibilities for careers that are highly stressful (e.g. managerial and executive positions). In the not-too-distant future, light may be shown to be effective in stimulating memory representations of stressful events under positive environments to alleviate negativity.
Scientists have also been able to induce behavioral changes in mice through optogenetics – including habit formation, reward and addiction as well as sleep (Gerits and Vanduffel, 2013). This suggests that one day, workshops can be used to train personnel to increase work efficiency, whether it be eliminating bad habits or forming suitable ones; as well as developing talents, and refining them on neurological level. Firms one day may even be able to apply this concept to foster interpersonal connections. Today, conflict and workplace politics are all but inevitable. Optogenetics may minimize lasting disagreements, which in turn may minimize voluntary turnover in organizations.
Another dimension of this technology is the delivery of light. By inserting an optical fiber into brains of mice, with a specific light unique to the protein on the other end (Prakish et al., 2012), scientists can turn targeted cells on and off.
However, there needs to be a specific type of light to stimulate the targeted proteins. One type of protein, called channelrhodopsin, only responds to blue light to activate cells; another, called halorhodopsin, responds specifically to yellow light to inhibit cell activity (Albert, 2014). So other than just enhancing the association of negative representations with positive memories, inhibition of negative representations is possible as well. With such specialization, one can aim to allocate specific behaviors to specific proteins and converge the light stimulus to achieve an enhanced/diminished reaction, or have them serve different purposes simultaneously.
While optogenetics is a promising method, there are still technical obstacles scientists need to overcome before this technique can be safely applied to humans. To date, there are only three studies of optogenetics on primates (Gerits & Vanduffel, 2013). An issue that has yet to be addressed is the method of protein insertion into the human system. Scientists typically use viruses as a tool for genetic expression. Invasive microinjection of some viruses has proved to be safe in the treatment of some Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s patients (Albert, 2014).
Albert, P.R. (2014). Light up our life: Optogenetics for depression?J Psychiatry Neurosci,39(1), 3-5.
Belluck, P. (2014, August 28). Flipping from fearful to cheerful.The Seattle Times.
Gerits, A., Vanduffel, W. (2013). Optogenetics in primates: A shining future?Trends in Genetics, 29(7), 403-411.
Prakash, J., Das, R.C., Srivastava, K., Bhat, P.S., Shashikumar, R., Gupta, A. (2012). Optogenetics in psychiatry: The light ahead.Industrial Psychiatry Journal, 21(2), 160-162.