By using beams of light to stimulate portions of a monkey’s brain, researchers have improved on how its brain functions, enabling the monkey to complete assigned tasks more quickly. Scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital, who used a virus to carry light-sensitive genes into the brains of two monkeys, showed they reacted about 10% faster when undergoing light stimulation. Wim Vanduffel, who headed the experiment, said that in unpublished experiments, “monkeys undergoing the technique while carrying out a more complex task improved even further. ‘My hunch is that the harder the task, the more significant the effect,’ he says.”
What’s the Big Idea?
As gene switches have been identified that work on specific areas of the brain, using beams of light to stimulate those areas has quickly evolved as a method to improve brain function. “Known as optogenetics, the method has the potential to treat conditions such as epilepsy, where the light could temporarily deactivate the brain cells that cause seizures, or Parkinson’s disease, where it can activate cells that make dopamine, the neurotransmitter vital for controlling mobility that those with Parkinson’s lack.” Scientists continue to search for ways to target certain brain cells without disrupting healthy ones.
Consciousness isn’t just a problem for philosophers. On this episode of Dispatches, Kmele sat down with scientists, a mathematician, a spiritual leader, and an entrepreneur, all trying to get to the heart of “the feeling of life itself.”