Optogenetics: a new (slightly scary) way of decoding memory

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The emerging field of optogenetics is providing neurologists with a novel way of exploring memory processing in the brain.  It involves first genetically engineering the brains of test animals, such as mice, to be receptive to light, then using light to control the optically-sensitized neurons.  An article in MIT’s Technology Review discusses the process of triggering memories with “light switches” (see the Related Article below).

Simply stated, the process involves triggering neurons to fire by stimulating them with light, by means of a fibre-optic probe. This firing then activates adjacent neurons which in turn activate a network of neurons equivalent to a memory unit.  The process as it stands is pretty invasive, requiring the insertion of probes – not to mention the genetic engineering of the subjects’ brains.  It’s not hard to imagine an extension of the infra-red scanning approach I mentioned in a previous article on mind reading to accomplish something similar in a far less invasive way, ideally without the need for any GM light-sensitive neurons.  With the added ability to map the location(s) of specific memories – they tend to be spread around – an IR external probe could then trigger memories by re-visiting and stimulating the associated neurons, perhaps through highly directional ultrasound or some yet-to-be-discovered stimulus.  So who knows, “read once, remember anytime” may be an axiom of learners of the future.

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