The feature story in this week’s New York Times Science section covers the potential applications of a novel technique for directly stimulating the brain via genetically engineered neurons that respond to light. The story is illustrative of the truly exponential increases that are being made in our ability to understand and actively manipulate the brain’s function, and also of how we are increasingly approaching a point at which the ethical issues around brain stimulation and performance enhancement may become an issue as relevant as traditional, chemical doping.
The process involves creating special neurons that can be controlled to either fire or not fire as a response to being stimulated by light, and the technique has already been used to reduce the symptoms of anxiety in mice via targeted stimulation of the brain areas known to function abnormally in anxiety sufferers:
the procedure involves bioengineering that most people would think twice about. First, biologists identify an “opsin,” a protein found in photosensitive organisms like pond scum that allows them to detect light. Next, they fish out the opsin’s gene and insert it into a neuron within the brain, using viruses that have been engineered to be harmless —“disposable molecular syringes,” as Dr. Anderson calls them.There, the opsin DNA becomes part of the cell’s genetic material, and the resulting opsin proteins conduct electric currents — the language of the brain — when they are exposed to light. (Some opsins, like channelrhodopsin, which responds to blue light, activate neurons; others, like halorhodopsin, activated by yellow light, silence them.)
Finally, researchers delicately thread thin optical fibers down through layers of nervous tissue and deliver light to just the right spot.
Thanks to optogenetics, neuroscientists can go beyond observing correlations between the activity of neurons and an animal’s behavior; by turning particular neurons on or off at will, they can prove that those neurons actually govern the behavior.
So where is the tie-in to sports? Right now, there isn’t much of one. It’s a brand-new techniques that’s a long ways off from being applied to human subjects. Although wouldn’t it be nice, while standing at the free-throw line in the fourth quarter or lining up a penalty kick, to be able to just hit a button and have all your anxiety disappear? But it is illustrative of the huge leaps that are constantly being made not only in understanding the function of the brain, but in actually getting in under the hood and manipulating its function to either remedy afflictions or even enhance normal performance.
It is already possible, today, to manipulate brain function non-invasively using transcranial magnetic stimulation (watch how the reporter loses his ability to speak just via the presence of a strong magnet up against his skull in the video below). Recent research has also demonstrated that simply running a current through the areas of the brain associated with a motor task can help people to not only learn the task faster than a control group, but also make them less susceptible to forgetting what they learned months later.
Without a doubt, the grandchildren of techniques like the one featured above will eventually open up a new debate over the ethics of performance enhancement. “Gene doping” has been talked about theoretically for a long time now, but it is fast approaching actual relevance.