Less invasive neuron-activating device shines light through the skull


Optogenetics is a very promising technique – among other things, it may one day be used to reduce anxiety, treat addiction, and even reverse blindness. A newly developed device could soon also make it considerably less invasive, and thus more doable.

In a nutshell, optogenetics involves first adding light-sensitive proteins to specific neurons in the brain, then using tiny implanted LEDs to illuminate those neurons, thus activating them on demand. Needless to say, through, introducing the proteins and the implants does involve surgically penetrating the brain.

Scientists at the University of Arizona may now have solved at least half of the problem, with a light-delivery device that sits outside the skull. Described as being « as thin as a sheet of paper and about half the diameter of a dime, » it’s implanted beneath the scalp skin, above the neurons in question.

When wirelessly activated, it then shines its light through the bone and into the brain, stimulating those neurons. It’s also wirelessly powered via an externally generated electromagnetic field, so it doesn’t require a bulky battery of its own that needs to be recharged or replaced.

Philipp Gutruf (left) and Jokubas Ausra demonstrate how the device is able to transmit light through biological tissue

Philipp Gutruf (left) and Jokubas Ausra demonstrate how the device is able to transmit light through biological tissue

University of Arizona

The technology has already been successfully tested on mice. It may in fact be particularly well-suited to research, as it won’t require animals to be physically wired to a power or control source.

« This tool allows scientists to do a wide range of experiments that were previously not possible, » says the lead scientist, Prof. Philipp Gutruf. « These possibilities enable the scientific community to make faster progress to uncover the working principles of the brain and develop and test treatments in accurate environments. »

The study is described in a paper that was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: University of Arizona