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Enlightening Minds with Optogenetics

How scientists are communicating with the brain using viruses, protein, and light.

In April 2021, Elon Musk’s company Neuralink put a video online of a monkey playing Pong. That may not sound like much, but when you consider that the monkey, named Pager, was controlling the digital paddles using only his mind via a brain-machine interface, things start to get a little bananas.

Companies like Neuralink have been researching ways to interface with the brain. The idea is that electrodes connected directly to the brain will allow computers to map neural activity to heighten man-machine interfaces. While there is discussion that Neuralink is secretly Elon Musk’s proactive effort to confront the pending war over artificial intelligence, the primary application for companies like Neuralink will begin with amputees who may use the brain-machine interface to connect with artificial limbs and rebuild neural pathways.

These studies, as far as we know, have only been done on animals like Pager. But, is this the only way to create a brain-machine interface? For those of you monkeys out there who are not excited about strapping 2000 electrodes to your brain, you’re in luck! Enter the non-invasive solutions for interacting with the human brain.

Specifically, I’m talking about optogenetics.

National Science Foundation

In October 2019, I was invited by a friend to attend a conference at CalTech regarding artificial intelligence and the Department of Defense. The speakers were some of the leading experts in their fields. They explored deep learning neural networks, autonomous robotics, edge processing, and something else that really messed with my head.  

Dr. Viviana Gradinaru stepped up to the podium and discussed how her lab, aptly titled the Gradinaru Lab, were studying optogenetics to help treat diseases like Parkinson’s. It was that exact moment, sitting at the Atheneum, a building where Einstein himself once lectured, that two things happened:

One, I felt more stupid than any other point in my entire life. And that’s saying a lot, especially when you consider the amount of times I’ve worn a speedo in public.  And two, I came up with the plot for The Hawk Enigma. Right there, sitting in that room, the bulk of the plot for my book just sort of punched me in the ol’ pia mater. Six months later I finished my first draft. And it was all because of that one lecture. Well, that and cancer, which I’ll tell you about another time.

Dr. Gradinaru explained how optogenetics is the study of light to manipulate genetically defined neurons. Scientists would inject a protein derived from algae into the brain. Light-sensitive opsins, sometimes referred to as optogenetic actuators, would respond to light emitted against the skull at the appropriate frequency. This would stimulate the neurons. Optogenetics, using light and the appropriate protein, allows scientists to theoretically mitigate adverse neural activity in the brain caused by diseases like Parkinson’s. In some cases, they may even able to restore sight in the blind, treat addiction, and much more.

The first catch is that scientists had millions of potential proteins to dig through. So, they used machine learning algorithms and were able to cut their processing time down exponentially. The second catch: they had to deliver the proteins through a virus.

Yes, a virus. Should that freak anyone out? Not really. Most viruses are completely benign and die out quickly if not placed in an optimal setting. So, what is the benefit when it comes to optogenetics? No more “shaky shaky” as my Grandpa, who had Parkinson’s, used to call it. And all it takes is an algal protein identified via machine learning injected into your bloodstream with a virus to create optogenetic actuators stimulated by light on the outside of your skull.

“Oh, is that all?” you ask. Yes, that’s all.

Sound complicated? Well, it should. Because it is. And I’ve simplified this explanation as much as possible, so I don’t lose anyone. If you want to go down the optogenetic rabbit hole however, here is a great start.

Is optogenetics a better option than stitching a computer chip to your brain? The only way to know is to have Pager injected with optogenetic actuators. But we’ll have to get him away from that smoothie they feed him for playing Pong. We can also wait till we get to the point where we can plug a USB directly into Pager’s skull and download the results of Neuralink’s monkey business. In the meantime, you can always read The Hawk Enigma to bide your time. You don’t need a chip on your brain, a virally injected protein, or a degree in neuroscience. And the only side-effect? The potential to lose some sleep after crushing a great book.

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J.L. Hancock
J.L. Hancock

Drawing from a graduate level education in national security studies, foreign language expertise, and experience as a technician embedded with special operations forces, J.L. Hancock writes fiction that reflects the complexities of the modern world. His eye for detail and authentic narrative is rooted in the many lives he has lived, the worlds he has seen, and the people who inspire him.