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Surprising Science

New Device Lets Scientists Play the Brain Like a Piano

A new three-dimensional chip that emits light at different depths in the brain’s tissue could help scientists better understand distinct thought patterns and the sources of neurological disease.

What’s the Latest Development?

A new three-dimensional chip may soon allow neuroscientists to switch specific regions of the brain on and off, examining how different thought patternssay a memory of a loved one versus a looming dentist appointmentfunction in the brain. The practice of optogenetics already pairs light-sensitive genes with a light source that turns brain cells on or off, but to date, that light source can only affect one isolated spot in the brain while brain activity usually involves “complex sequences of activation in different locations.” 

What’s the Big Idea?

By implanting prongs that can emit light at different depths in the brain’s tissue, the new device is taking optogenetics into three dimensions. That should enable much more flexible research, sayid Ilker Ozden, of the Nanophotonics and Neuroengineering Laboratory at Brown University. “[A]nother long-term goal is to understand the specific sequences of brain activity that underlie disease processes or the brain’s response to therapies. These patterns could then be used as a way to test the efficacy of a drug, or to develop better interventions for disease.”

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