In 2005 Karl Deisseroth used the light beam to activate certain brain cells responsible for mood as a way to control its circuitry. Deisseroth, Professor of Bioengineering of Psychiatry at Stanford University, is best known for his development of a technology he coined as “Optogenetics”.
According to Deisseroth, Optogenetics is a tool not only to better study and observe the complex circuitry of the brain but also to manipulate the electrical activity of very specific cells that are responsible for certain emotion or behaviour.
Deisseroth applies his method in two main steps. He first infuses specifically targeted cells or groups of cells within the brain with a gene to render them light sensitive. Then he triggers or suppresses the activity of those neurons by stimulating them. This process requires a surgical operation (drilling holes into the person’s skull) in order to insert into the brain devices to accomplish the required procedure.
One of the applications of this technology that attracted much attention is to discover how the brain of an anxious or depressed person works and treat it. For this purpose Deisseroth only accepts people suffering from severe cases of depression and anxiety that all the other methods have failed to help them. He then combines psychiatric medications and Optogenetics to control those areas in their brain responsible for mood and behaviour.
Optogenetics could be a cutting-edge technology for research. However, it may not be suitable for treatment for several reasons. As you recall the first step of this brain manipulation technique is to render certain brain cells sensitive to light. In order to achieve this, a live virus is applied to the brain cell, which genetically and permanently alters its function. We don’t know what might be the long-term negative consequences of tampering with genetic function of brain cells. One possible side effect is that the immune system might reject the genetically altered brain cells.
Now, let’s assume that this technology is free from side effects. Why resort to such an invasive and expensive procedure when there are other less expensive and more effective methods available? As Leonardo Da Vinci said: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
I believe that a small percentage of people suffering from anxiety and depression can get help from drugs and/or complex technologies such as Optogenetics. However, according to my experience, the majority of people respond well to the right methodology. The key is to find a competent therapists who are specialized in helping people with anxiety and depression.