For the first time, MIT neuroscientists have shown they can control muscle movement by applying optogenetics a technique that allows scientists to control neurons' electrical impulses with light to the spinal cords of animals that are awake and alert.
Led by MIT Institute Professor Emilio Bizzi, the researchers studied mice in which a light-sensitive protein that promotes neural activity was inserted into a subset of spinal neurons. When the researchers shone blue light on the animals' spinal cords, their hind legs were completely but reversibly immobilized. The findings, described in the June 25 issue of PLoS One, offer a new approach to studying the complex spinal circuits that coordinate movement and sensory processing, the researchers say.
In this study, Bizzi and Vittorio Caggiano, a postdoc at MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research, used optogenetics to explore the function of inhibitory interneurons, which form circuits with many other neurons in the spinal cord. These circuits execute commands from the brain, with additional input from sensory information from the limbs.
Previously, neuroscientists have used electrical stimulation or pharmacological intervention to control neurons' activity and try to tease out their function. Those approaches have revealed a great deal of information about spinal control, but they do not offer precise enough control to study specific subsets of neurons.
Optogenetics, on the other hand, allows scientists to control specific types of neurons by genetically programming them to express light-sensitive proteins. These proteins, called opsins, act as ion channels or pumps that regulate neurons' electrical activity. Some opsins suppress activity when light shines on them, while others stimulate it.
"With optogenetics, you are attacking a system of cells that have certain characteristics similar to each other. It's a big shift in terms of our ability to understand ho
|Contact: Sarah McDonnell|
Massachusetts Institute of Technology