DARPA is stimulating the development of implantable therapies for brain trauma with $14.9M of federal funding towards optogenetics research. Led by optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth at Stanford University, the REPAIR research team will study the response of neural microcircuits to injury and develop implantable optogenetic microdevices that may help the brain restore function.
A highly-specific type of neuromodulation, optogenetics can switch neural activity on and off with a small implanted device that delivers green and yellow laser signals via fiber optics onto their respective light-sensitive genes, channelrhodopsin 2 (ChR2) and halorhodopsin (NpHR). Optogenetic signals are highly discriminant, unlike current deep brain stimulation (DBS) therapies, and pulses at the frequency at which neurons operate. The genetically-engineered cells in turn regulate the activity of specific neural circuits, such as those that play a role in Parkinson’s, blindness, spinal injury, narcolepsy, addiction, and memory.
According to Technology Review, over 500 laboratories today are applying optogenetic tools to animal models. Optogenetics has also garnered commercial R&D and prototyping at Medtronic to improve on its portfolio of electrical stimulators.
From a Stanford press release:
In REPAIR, the researchers will use optogenetics to produce completely reversible “injuries” in the brains of research animals, by temporarily turning off specific parts of the brain. They will then study how the brain might rewire itself to deal with that tissue becoming unavailable, said Karl Deisseroth, associate professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, who pioneered optogenetics.
“There are many advantages to using optogenetics instead of drugs or lesions,” Deisseroth said. “You are in no way injuring the animals, because as soon as you turn the light off they are back to normal, and it is also a lot cheaper, easier and more precise to use.”
The interdisciplinary team draws upon researchers from four universities in neuroscience, neurology and psychiatry to semiconductors, optoelectronics, statistical signal processing, machine learning and brain modeling.
Press release: New Stanford-led program aims to produce insights into brain injury, recovery…
Tech Review article on Medtronic’s R&D in optogenetics: A Brain Implant that Uses Light
Flashbacks: Optogenetics Focuses on Parkinson’s Treatment; Scientists Optically Deconstruct Parkinsonian Neural Circuitry; Fiber Optics Activate Neurons, Axons to Answer Parkinson’s Questions