The Illuminated Brain
Many of the greatest minds in the world have been hard at work for generations pushing back against merciless chronic conditions. Now, cures against cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, major depressive disorder, psychosis, and myriad more are closer to reality than ever before. How? The answer lies in optogenetics, a niche field of study that marries properties of light with genetics and biochemical engineering.
Optogenetics operates under the basic principle that the scientific processes taking place in the brain remain mysteries to us. Cranial metaphors of our brain’s wiring and computers and electrical circuitry are just that— metaphors. We created these comparisons to help us gain purchase on the elusive truth under the skull. Contrary to popular belief, the brain is not an electrical grid. The brain is not a hard drive. The brain is not a network. The brain is everything we are: contradictory, expansive, personal, mysterious, emotional. And it doesn’t quite know how to study itself.
Take, for instance, fMRI imagery. The pictures produced by an fMRI— the pictures you see of black-and-white brains speckled with colored lights— help us understand where in our brains something occurs when we encounter certain triggers. You see a loved one and a big section of your brain “lights up.” You hear a funny joke, and another lights up. You recall a sad memory, and another. And so forth. But what many of us don’t realize when we see our brains “light up” in fMRI images is that our brains aren’t literally coming alive with electricity. What fMRI images are picking up on is blood flow. Scientists can only assume that neural activity accompanies the blood flow pictured in fMRI imagery. It’s an incredibly educated guess, but it’s still a guess. We still don’t quite know what neural activity is and how it’s able to create and house something as nuanced as emotions, personalities, preferences, and more.
However, thanks to optogenetics, we are closer than ever to unlocking the secrets of the brain. Scientists have developed a special form of gene therapy where algae proteins known as channelrhodopsins are introduced into the genetic code of brain cells. This process edits the properties of brain cells so that they are sensitive to light, much like the algae itself. These algae proteins allow researchers to break free from studying the brain in terms of “the big sections that light up” and narrow the focus by targeting photosensitive reactions in individual cells. We can now introduce and control a pulse sent by an individual neuron to another neuron. And even more amazing, we can “turn neurons on or off”— says Dr. Karl Deisseroth in his article on the topic for the Scientific American— and do so “safely in response to light.”
To author another metaphor here, up until a few years ago, neuroscientists have been trying to assemble a ten-thousand-piece puzzle with oven mitts on. This optogenetic breakthrough takes away their oven mitts and allows them to work more precisely. And by default, more safely.
Optogenetics at Work
Defects of the eye are the perfect starting point for optogenetic testing. The eye is both the easiest access point to the brain and relatively cut off from our body’s most robust immune responses, so when gene therapy begins and the engineered algae proteins are injected into the retinal cells, chances of success are much higher than when injected elsewhere. Also, optogenetics is an optic science— there is no better place to test the efficacy of light-sensitive proteins than the human organs designed specifically to sense light.
Using precise injections, researchers were able to edit the genetic codes of cells in one of a blind test subject’s eyes. The test subject— a fifty-eight-year-old man living in France— suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited retinal disease that causes the breakdown of important cells at the back of the eye. After months of therapy and while utilizing special amber-light goggles to enhance the effects of his treatment, the patient was able to see things he hadn’t seen in decades, such as the painted stripes on a crosswalk and a black notebook on a white table. The gene therapy he received is not designed to restore full vision but stands as a powerful springboard for future research. “The findings [prove] that using optogenetic therapy to partially restore vision is possible,” says Dr. Botond Roska, a co-author of the study. And where parts are found, wholes can be also.
Assessing Your Risk
Are you concerned about your eye health? Have you inherited retinitis pigmentosa? Are you predisposed for macular degeneration (like me)? Unfortunately, the gene therapy that restored partial vision to the test subject is not widely available yet, but it has been approved by the FDA and awaits further development. In the meantime, here are a few things you can do to help safeguard your vision right now.
Wear proper eye protection. It’s obvious that eyes are incredibly sensitive organs and so it’s important that you never go without an activity’s recommended eyewear. Wear goggles when you work with tools and chemicals or participate in certain sports. Wear sunglasses when you are outside in the sun (extra props if they’re polarized to reduce glare). Invest in glasses that block the harmful light from screens. Keep in mind that just because you can still see doesn’t mean that your eyes aren’t being hurt.
Never sleep in your contacts. Contrary to many advertising campaigns, ‘sleep safe’ contact lenses do not exist. Leaving what the body considers to be a foreign object in your eye overnight can cause dry eye, irritation, mild to severe infections, and permanent scarring of the cornea. It can also cause your contact lens to fold back behind the lid and get stuck out of your reach. Save yourself a trip to the doctor— and the risk of blindness— and simply take out your contacts before you sleep.
Stop smoking. Smoking not only irritates the eyes, but increases your chances of developing infections, macular degeneration, and cataracts. Additionally, smoking hardens blood vessels and does permanent damage to your optic nerves.
Stay hydrated. Getting enough water in a day is crucial to regulating the health of your eyes. Not only is dealing with chronic dry eye painful but having dry eyes is linked to developing vision-threatening infections. So keep a water bottle handy!
Take your vitamins. Eyes operate best utilizing a lush blend of nutrients. Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A, and lutein are among the most important to maintaining healthy eye function. To keep topped off on these nutrients, eat plenty of dark green vegetables, citrus fruits, fish, high-quality oils, nuts, carrots, sweet potatoes, and eggs. If you follow an exclusive diet, taking vitamin supplements for eye function will work too!
Educate yourself on your family’s eye health history. So many dangerous eye conditions are treatable. The kicker is that you need to know what you’re up against before you start fighting. Your genetics play an enormous role in determining whether you’ll develop vision loss, so ask your family members about their eye health history. If you can afford to do so, it may also be helpful to get a genetic test. This test by 23andMe is a great option and will give you an informative report on the genetic conditions you have a risk of developing.
Get regular eye exams. Plain and simple. Scheduling a general eye exam with a medical professional is an excellent shield against harmful eye diseases. A doctor should be able to accurately gauge the health of your eyes and keep you aware of your risk of vision loss as you age.
Modern medicine is always advancing, and with optogenetics pioneering vision-restoring gene therapies, perhaps the end of blindness as we know it is finally in sight.
And yes. Pun very much intended.
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