In a fascinating article in Scientific American Oxford's Gero Miesenbock explores the history of optogenetics - combining optics and genetic engineering to study specific types of cells.
Gero's particular interest is in combining genes that encode for cells that either emit or respond to light with neurons: in order to study brain circuitry.
He recently found a brain circuit in the olfactory system of fruit flies that produces noise - a discovery that has wider implications, as the basic architecture of a fruit fly's olfactory system is the same as a human's. Before that he had shown how stimulating the brains of fruit flies using a laser can cause female flies to perform a male courtship dance.
The Scientific American piece is well worth reading in full, but one particular point caught my eye when he goes on to discuss how the benefits of such research might one day impact on medicine:
'it would seem arbitrary and hypocritical to draw a sharp boundary between physical means for influencing brain function and chemical manipulations... In fact, physical interventions can arguably be targeted and dosed more precisely than drugs, thus reducing side effects.'
It's easy to fall prey to the understandable fear that physical interventions in our brains risk turning us into zombies or will-sapped cyborgs but are we all too easily overlooking the same risks associated with the drug cocktails patients routinely swallow?
I think we might look on such physical 'mind control' approaches differently if, in the future, they could offer relief from movement disorders such as Parkinson's, from debilitating behavioural disorders, and maybe eventually restore our lost senses.
As Gero comments, such direct approaches are still some way off. But right now optogenetics offers the promise of revealing new targets for drugs that could tackle anything from obesity to insomnia and anxiety.
Thanks to the work of Gero and others the 21st Century may genuinely turn out to be the 'Century of the Brain'.