Optogenetics is a technique that integrates laser technology and genetic engineering. Researchers recently used this technology to alter brain circuitry in mice to determine what effect this would have on the reward system and subsequent behaviors. New research suggests that treatment methods that target two specific areas of the brain, the nucleus accumbens and amygdala, could be significant in helping those with addiction or other neuropsychiatric problems. “For most clinical disorders we knew that one region or another in the brain was important, however until now we didn’t have the tools to directly study the connections between those regions,” said Garret D. Stuber, Ph.D., assistant professor in the departments of cell and molecular physiology, psychiatry and the Neuroscience Center in the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, and the lead author of the study. “Our ability to perform this level of sophistication in neural circuit manipulation will likely lead to the discovery of molecular players perturbed during neuropsychiatric illnesses.”
When optogenetics is performed, scientists manipulate specific proteins called “opsins.” These proteins originate from bacteria or algae and are dependent on light. Scientists transfer these opsins in the regions of the brains they want to examine and then control their activity by administering flashes of laser beams. In this study, Stuber and his team discovered that when they activated the connection between these two specific brain regions, the mice experienced a neurological reward. The increased activity through the use of the opsins resulted in the mice learning a specific reward behavior in a much shorter period of time than anticipated. Additionally the mice that were not manipulated, never learned the reward task that the scientists implemented. The researchers believe the findings are significant and can provide valuable information for examining how the brain responds to reward stimulation. Stuber hopes that this research may lead to alternative treatment options for neuropsychiatric problems like Parkinson’s disease.
© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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