The Human brain may still be man’s greatest mystery, but we are making advances everyday that could dramatically alter our understanding and treatment of it. To get a clearer picture of this, let’s explore a few up and coming scientific breakthroughs, starting with one that affects our everyday lives: cell phones.
At the present time, cell phones utilize radio frequencies to send information, but as the number of users is increasing exponentially – and the number of frequencies is holding steady – we are reaching a problem. Very soon, the space in the radio waves will run out, and there will be more cell phone users than it can handle, potentially causing a communication crisis. However, there are individuals seeking a solution to this, such as Professor Harald Haas at the University of Edinborough. He has had a breakthrough with something that can be purchased cheaply almost anywhere in the world: an [easyazon-link asin=”B005Y514Z6″ locale=”us”]LED lightbulb[/easyazon-link].
LED light, which exists on the visible electromagnetic spectrum, has a range that is more than 10,000 times larger than the radio frequencies used by cell phones. Professor Haas has been able to utilize what he calls ‘Light Fidelity’ or ‘Li-Fi’ to send information through an illuminated LED bulb. The light waves are then able to be picked up by a receiver, and the information they carry can then be translated back into its original form. The study is still just in its beginning stages, but there is no doubt that it will be used in the future of cell phones and a vast myriad of other technologies. Most importantly, however, is the potential that Li-Fi has to be utilized in neuroscience to aid the functionality of the mind. Enter deep brain stimulation, a new type of therapy that was recently presented on TED Talks by neurosurgeon and professor Andres Lozano.
Basic neurological functions tend to be difficult to understand, so I will use a nature analogy to best explain the ones that this method involves. To begin, imagine that your brain is a field. In this field is a vast array of flowers (neurons) and buzzing back and forth between locations are bees (neurotransmitter molecules) which carry pollen (information). As we age, and come into the ‘fall’ of our lives, the ‘flowers’ begin to wither and the ‘bees’ have far more difficulty in distributing the ‘pollen’, such as with Alzheimer’s patients. Using the deep brain stimulation method, electrodes can be implanted into the specific section of the ‘field’ that is non-communicative, and act as a dial to increase and decrease the amount of ‘bees’ in that area. Like Li-Fi, this treatment is in its early stages, but the results have been very promising thus far, and the therapy is gaining momentum in the medical community. So what do these two advancements have to do with one another? Potentially, quite a bit.
Currently, in order to transfer information from one place to the next, our brains are confined to chemical means. Unfortunately, those chemicals can become imbalanced, which results in physical and mental issues that run rampant through the Human race. However, with [easyazon-link asin=”1936303116″ locale=”us”]Deep Brain Stimulation[/easyazon-link] on the rise, we are finding ways to access the neuronal pathways and repair them with almost pinpoint precision. Light technology is also advancing quickly. If proven to be a more effective and safe information transmitter, it could potentially be used in deep brain stimulation as a replacement therapy. To understand how, let’s continue with our previous analogy of the field.
Imagine that all of the ‘flowers’ have been upgraded with a special gene that allows them to emit and receive light. The ‘bees’ are no longer necessary to transfer information; it can be readily exchanged by all parts of the field with little chance of failure. Yet this brings us to wonder; could light waves really be utilized in the delicate frame of the Human neural structure to replace chemical exchanges? So far, the outlook is good thanks to optogenetics.
Deisseroth Lab at Stanford University has been splicing genes from algae and microorganisms together with neurons inside the brains of rats. The genes are coded to respond to certain color, turning on with blue light, and off with yellow light. A fiber optic cable is then inserted into the desired area of the rat’s brain, allowing the scientists to expose it to whatever stimuli they wish. Thus far, they have been able to control the direction of the rat’s movement using optical signals.
Ed Boyden, an MIT neuroscientist, has taken this technology a step further. He used Pavlovian fear conditioning to instill PTSD in a rat, and then subsequently used [easyazon-link asin=”0444594264″ locale=”us”]Optogenetics[/easyazon-link] to reverse the condition. Now, both his and Deisseroth Lab’s innovations have been picked up by hundreds of research facilities around the globe, and the studies have begun to include testing on monkeys. If successful, Human trials will be implemented to potentially help solve a broad range of physical and mental disorders.
Even with the given evidence, the future of optogenetics and Li-Fi in neuroscience is still a question that only time will tell. Until the answers arrive, we can only wait patiently for the day that the term ‘lightbulb’, in a moment of clarity, will gain a whole new meaning.