Many neurological and psychiatric disorders are associated with abnormal activity in specific brain circuits. So far, approaches to correct abnormalities in brain circuits have relied on the use of electrical or magnetic stimulation which only relieves the symptoms partially or for a short period of time.
However, researchers in one of NIH Common Fund’s New Innovator program, has engineered a powerful new class of tools to shut down nerve activity for short periods of time using different colors of light. The development of these new technologies would allow the precise control of neural circuits which could lead to new treatments for disorders associated with abnormal brain activity, including chronic pain, epilepsy, brain injury, and Parkinson’s disease.
These techniques are based on genes recovered from bacteria and fungi that encode light activated proteins normally used for energy production in these organisms. These nerve cells expressing proteins are exposed to the appropriate wavelength of light and then are prevented from transmitting electrical signals. When used in combination with genetic techniques to target these proteins to specific brain regions or cell subsets, these tools can lead to a much deeper understanding of the brain’s role in health and disease.
The NIH Common Fund Program supports seven research programs plus research across NIH institutes and centers in order to accomplish work that no single institute or center could do alone. The research programs will distribute $17.8 million for Fiscal year 2010 and additional funds in future years.
For more information, go to http://commonfund.nih.gov.