Personal Growth Series: Cracking the Neural Code: Speaking the Language of the Brain with Optics

Posted in Conferences, Companies, Science on November 27, 2008



The technological seeds of a Manhattan project-style scientific enterprise, the optical reverse-engineering of brain circuits to crack the neural code, have recently been planted at Stanford.

The brain is a high-speed dynamical system consisting of different players that are intertwined and that cannot be separately controlled using conventional methods. For this reason, until recently we have not been able to speak the language of the brain (with millisecond timescale and cell-specific resolution), and in 1979 Francis Crick called for a technology by which all neurons of just one type could be controlled, "leaving the others more or less unaltered".

Tools from the Deisseroth laboratory at Stanford over the past four years have responded to this challenge. These include optical technologies for controlling neural circuits, using precisely-targeted delivery of light energy of different colors that is captured by neurons using nanoscale protein-based antennae, resulting in controlled activity of just the targeted cell types with millisecond precision. Light is delivered by fiberoptics; while light encounters all cell types, only the desired cell type is light-sensitive and responds. Using different optogenetic probes, cells can be turned on or off with millisecond precision and in different combinations.

These tools have now been used to optically deconstruct Parkinsonian neural circuitry, setting the stage both for cracking the neural codes of normal brain function, and for re-engineering neural circuits in disease.

Speaker: Karl Deisseroth
Professor Deisseroth received his bachelor's degree from Harvard in 1992, his PhD from Stanford in 1998, and his MD from Stanford in 2000. He completed medical internship and adult psychiatry residency at Stanford, and he was board-certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in 2006. He joined the faculty on January 1, 2005. He is the first, and so far only, practicing psychiatrist in the nation with a primary appointment in a bioengineering department.

As a bioengineer focused on neuroengineering, he has launched an effort to map neural circuit dynamics in neuropsychiatric disease, including depression and Parkinson's Disease, on the millisecond timescale. His group at Stanford has developed optical and stem-cell based neuroengineering technologies for noninvasive imaging and control of brain circuits, as they operate within living intact tissue. His work on optical control of neural circuits has launched a new field called "optogenetics", and he has published major papers in Nature and Science that have been termed "stunning" and "revolutionary" by his scientific colleagues.

Professor Deisseroth has received many major awards including the NIH Director's Pioneer Award, the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering (PECASE), the McKnight Foundation Technological Innovations in Neuroscience Award, the Larry Katz Prize in Neurobiology, the Schuetze Award in Neuroscience, the Whitehall Foundation Award, the Charles E. Culpeper Scholarship in Medical Science Award, the Klingenstein Fellowship Award and the Robert H. Ebert Clinical Scholar Award.

Google Tech Talks
November 21, 2008

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