Scientists at MIT have developed an optogenetics technique that can lead to long-term changes in neuronal excitability by altering neuronal membrane capacitance. Unlike conventional optogenetics, which involves using light to rapidly activate ion channels on engineered neurons, the new technique relies on a light-sensitive reaction to increase the presence of conductive or insulating polymers in the cell membrane. The method creates long-term changes in neuronal excitability, and does not require continuous illumination to maintain these changes. The method is primarily intended as a research tool that can increase our understanding of the brain and neurological diseases, but it may also have therapeutic applications in the future.
Optogenetics was first developed about 20 years ago. The research technique uses genetically engineering neurons to express light-sensitive ion channels and then illuminates them to provoke an immediate and rapid neuronal activation. However, while conventional optogenetics is useful, there is room for improvement.