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Scary Thought: Scientists build an ’off switch’ for the brain

Scientists have developed an “off-switch” for the brain to effectively shut down neural activity using light pulses.

In 2005, Stanford scientist Karl Deisseroth discovered how to switch individual brain cells on and off by using light in a technique he dubbed ’optogenetics’.

Research teams around the world have since used this technique to study brain cells, heart cells, stem cells and others regulated by electrical signals.

However, light-sensitive proteins were efficient at switching cells on but proved less effective at turning them off.

Now, after almost a decade of research, scientists have been able to shut down the neurons as well as activate them.

Mr Deisseroth’s team has now re-engineered its light-sensitive proteins to switch cells much more adequately than before. His findings are presented in the journal Science.

Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded the study, said this improved “off” switch will help researchers to better understand the brain circuits involved in behavior, thinking and emotion.

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