Scared by the light

Who’d have thought that a protein isolated from pond scum would transform the way researchers investigate the brain? The protein, called channelrhodopsin (ChR), is found in algae and other microbes, and is related to the molecule in human photoreceptors that captures light particles. Both versions control the electrical currents that constantly flow in and out of cells; one regulates the algae’s movements in response to light, the other generates the nervous impulses sent along the optic nerve to the brain. Unlike its human equivalent, the algal ChR controls the currents directly because it forms a pore that spans the cell membrane. When expressed in neurons, it renders the cells sensitive to light, and they can be switched on or off very precisely using lasers.

This discovery led to the emergence of a new field called optogenetics. Early studies showed that the technique can be used to control the behaviour of small organisms such as nematode worms and fruit flies. Last year, Karl Deisseroth‘s group at Stanford University demonstrated, for the first time, that it can also be used to control reward and motivation behaviours in mice. Josh Johansen of the Center for Neural Science at New York University and his colleagues have now taken this one step further. Working in collaboration with Deisseroth, they show that optogenetics can also be used to induce a simple form of associative learning called fear conditioning.

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Vegetative and minimally conscious patients can learn

The vegetative and minimally conscious states are examples of what are referred to as disorders of consciousness. Patients in these conditions are more or less oblivious to goings-on in their surroundings – they exhibit few, if any, signs of conscious awareness, and are usually unable to communicate in any way. It is, therefore, extremely difficult to establish what these patients are experiencing, and the consciousness disorders are among the least understood, and most commonly diagnosed, conditions in medicine.

Although technologies such as functional neuorimaging have enabled clinicians to gain some insight into these conditions, proper assessment and diagnosis of patients are still major challenges, and there are big ethical questions regarding how they should be treated. However, researchers from the University of Cambridge have made what could be a significant advance.

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