Bio Research / Current
Why mapping the human brain matters

Mapping the Human Brain
By Dominic Basulto


What could we gain by mapping the human brain?

It turns out that President Barack Obama’s head-scratching mention of a project to map the human brain in his most recent State of the Union speech was more than just a casual comment.

John Markoff of the New York Times reported this week that the White House will soon unveil a massive, multi-billion-dollar research project to map the entire human brain that will likely involve scores of scientists, foundations and government agencies. When completed, a detailed map of how the human brain works would be a staggering development in innovation — one that could lead to cures for brain-related illnesses as well as unimagined breakthroughs in artificial intelligence.

Today’s technology landscape would be completely altered.

Similar to the Human Genome Project to which it has already been already compared, the Brain Activity Map Project would open up the mysterious workings of what makes us human. We already know something of how the brain processes information, but thus far, we only have isolated bits and pieces. A full map would let researchers know how every neuron fires, how every thought comes into being, and how the human brain learns over time. A map would let us understand the link between thought, memory and emotion. Now, this is where things get really interesting (and possibly scary), understanding how the brain works could, perhaps, help us solve some of the greatest mysteries of our age: What is the essence of genius? Do we have a soul?

Understandably, then, mapping the human brain has been a particular fascination of scientists such as George Church and Ray Kurzweil for years (Kurzweil’s newest book, in fact, is called “How to Create a Mind” and details his quest to reverse-engineer the human brain). It’s only been in recent years, however, that we’ve had the computing chops and brain imaging techniques to actually get a detailed look at the human brain at the level of the individual neuron. In 2012, for example, the Human Connectome project of the NIH found that the human brain was wired much like a Mondrian grid painting.

Knowing how the human brain works means that we will, at some point in the near future, be able to fundamentally change the structure of it by re-arranging a few neural pathways. If we understand how memory works, we may be able to download new memories into our brains. If we understand how language processing works, we may be able to insert foreign language knowledge into our brains just like a series of software upgrades. In his new book, Kurzweil includes some interesting charts documenting the exponential growth in new technologies that is making all of this possible. With each exponential increase in computing potential, new opportunities arise. At some point, we will be able to transform our computing machines into highly-intelligent thinking machines. Years from now, we may look back on early artificial intelligence efforts before the era of the Brain Activity Map and view IBM’s Watson supercomputer as the computing equivalent of a classroom dunce.

What’s fascinating, of course, is what the White House stands to gain. Is it a pure legacy play for by the Obama administration? In much the same way that the JFK presidency has become known as the one that sent our nation to the moon, will the Obama presidency be known as the one where we mapped the human brain and broke the bar on artificial intelligence forever?

It’s certainly not a jobs play, although it can be imagined that quite a few neuroscientists will be hired for this project. Maybe it’s an economic play, especially since Obama noted that every $1 invested in mapping the human genome has resulted in a staggering $140 in new economic activity.

The most likely outcome in the short-term, at least, is that our nation’s leading tech companies will use this new knowledge from the Brain Activity Map to make us much smarter in our everyday lives. This is just a guess, but now that Ray Kurzweil has landed at the Googleplex, it’s easy to see how a company such as Google could build on findings from the Brain Activity Map project and build new brain assistants for our computing devices that mimic the activity of the human brain.

At the same time, entirely new companies may emerge, offering futuristic services such as cosmetic brain surgery or “total recall” or “the eternal sunshine of a spotless mind”.

Using Big Data
Bina ushers in new era of medicine


February 19, 2013

Dr. Narges Bani Asadi says cancer is a genetic disease. She is using technology to fight it.

Asadi is the founder and CEO of Bina, a healthcare startup working to make ‘personalized medicine’ a reality. Bina applies big data analytics to genomics, making it possible to sequence the human genome in a matter of hours rather than days or weeks.

Today, Bina launched its commercial product. The platform provides physicians, clinicians, and researchers with a detailed picture of a patient’s health. From there, they can make data-driven diagnoses and prescribe individualized courses of treatment.

“Medicine today is very experimental,” said founder and CEO Narges Bani Asadi in an interview with VentureBeat. “Before, there was a bottle neck to crunch the massive amount of genomic data. At Bina, we have created the fastest, most highly accurate, cost-efficient processing solution available in the market today. The next step is to incorporate this genomic data into medical use. Data-driven, information-based medicine is much more targeted. Personalizing therapies for different diseases means a longer and healthier quality of life for all humans.”

There are thousands of genetic disorders. In 2013, over 580,000 Americans are expected to die of cancer. One in 20 babies born in the U.S. is admitted into the neonatal intensive care unit, and 20 percent of infant deaths result from congenital or chromosomal defects. Technology can be used to curb these terrifying trends. Bina’s role is to bridge the gap between DNA sequencing technology and the diagnosticians and clinicians who can apply it to their practice.

“The study of genomics has largely been a research activity done in medical schools and universities,” said Mark Sutherland, Bina’s senior vice president of business development. “They could only look at a few samples at a time because it was too expensive or complicated to do it at scale. There is a tidal wave of data that has not been manageable or in a format physicians can understand. Now we are seeing an inflection point. Sequencing is a powerful way of looking across a broad spectrum to provide insight into the cause of certain diseases and conduct risk assessments, early detection, or predict the possibility of recurrence. It can also be used to find applicable therapies and customize treatments.”

Asadi said her team had to achieve innovations in every step of genetic processing in order to create a scaleable, marketable, effective solution. Bina’s platform includes a hardware box to collect DNA, advanced software to process the data, and applications to turn the data into actionable form.

Whereas before a full genetic analysis took weeks or months and could cost thousands of dollars, Bina turns it around within hours for around $200 a sample.

The technology emerged out of Asadi’s PhD work at Stanford. She collaborated with professors from around the world to apply high performance computing and computer architecture to gain a new understanding of human health and disease. Bina was founded in 2011 by three professors from the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford. It is backed by venture funding, and pilot customers include the Stanford Genetics Department and Palo Alto Veteran Affairs Hospital.

Startups don’t often set out to cure cancer or prevent infant mortality. However, as technology continues to evolve and along with it, the healthcare industry, a medical system where diagnoses and treatments are based on hard data, where each and every individual is treated as such, could be on the horizon.

Read a VentureBeat guest post by Dr. Asadi: The personalized medicine revolution is almost here. [To learn more about the most transformative IT trends hitting health care, including big data, consider coming to HealthBeat, our event for health care executives and decision-makers, on May 20-21 in San Francisco.] Read more at http://venturebeat.com/2013/02/19/using-big-data-to-cure-cancer-bina-ushers-in-new-era-of-medicine/#STDcXUszOYX6TDfe.99

Quadruple Helix DNA Strands Discovered By UK Scientists

January 21, 2013

Image Caption: Quadruplex visualization and staining in human cell nuclei and chromosomes. Credit: Jean-Paul Rodriguez and Giulia Biffi

RedOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online

On the 60th anniversary of the publication of the paper describing the double-helix structure of DNA, researchers from Cambridge University reportedly have proven the existence of four-stranded “quadruple helix” DNA structures within the human genome.

It was in 1953 that James D. Watson and Francis Crick, also of Cambridge University, published a paper which described the interweaving structure of the double-stranded molecules that contain the genetic code for all living things. Now, in research published in the journal Nature Chemistry, scientists describe the quadruple helix structures known as G-quadruplexes.

G-quadruplexes form in zones of DNA that are rich in guanine, a nucleobase or building block that is also known simply as “G,” the university explained in a January 20 statement.

The findings of the study, which was funded by Cancer Research UK, were announced after more than a decade of research that involved computer modeling, laboratory experiments, and ultimately, the use of fluorescent biomarkers to identify the structures in human cancer cells.

“The research… goes on to show clear links between concentrations of four-stranded quadruplexes and the process of DNA replication, which is pivotal to cell division and production,” Cambridge University officials explained. “By targeting quadruplexes with synthetic molecules that trap and contain these DNA structures – preventing cells from replicating their DNA and consequently blocking cell division – scientists believe it may be possible to halt the runaway cell proliferation at the root of cancer.”

“We are seeing links between trapping the quadruplexes with molecules and the ability to stop cells dividing, which is hugely exciting,” added Shankar Balasubramanian, the lead researcher and a professor in the university’s Department of Chemistry. “The research indicates that quadruplexes are more likely to occur in genes of cells that are rapidly dividing, such as cancer cells. For us, it strongly supports a new paradigm to be investigated – using these four-stranded structures as targets for personalized treatments in the future.”

Previously, scientists have demonstrated that quadruplex DNA could form in test tubes, but it was generally not believed such structures could be found in nature. The Cambridge University team’s new research, however, shows not only can they occur, but they actually form in the DNA of human cells. According to officials at Cancer Research UK, this knowledge could be used to help treat the disease.

“This research further highlights the potential for exploiting these unusual DNA structures to beat cancer – the next part of this pipeline is to figure out how to target them in tumor cells,” said Dr. Julie Sharp, the organization’s senior science information manager. “It’s been sixty years since its structure was solved but work like this shows us that the story of DNA continues to twist and turn.”

“The ‘quadruple helix’ DNA structure may well be the key to new ways of selectively inhibiting the proliferation of cancer cells. The confirmation of its existence in human cells is a real landmark,” added Balasubramanian.

And, now this?

3D Printing Of Synthetic Tissues

Building tissues in 3D. I can’t believe this! 3D printers are now building synthetic tissues! The printers can create materials to replace damaged tissues in the human body, with several properties of living tissues and without some of the common problems seen in stem cell approaches. The printer prints “droplets” with protein pores to form pathways through the network that mimic nerves and are able to transmit electrical signals, but these cells are not actually living, as they have no genome and don’t replicate.

Umm, can we go ahead print me a new ACL?

Scientists Develop 3D Printer That Can Create Synthetic Tissue

April 5, 2013



Image Caption: A custom-built programmable 3D printer can create materials with several of the properties of living tissues, Oxford University scientists have demonstrated: Droplet network c.500 microns across with electrically conductive pathway between electrodes mimicking nerve. Credit: Oxford University/G Villar

WATCH VIDEO: [Synthetic Tissue Built With 3D Printer]

Scientists reported in the journal Science that they have developed a 3-D printer that can create materials with several of the properties of living tissues.

The new type of 3-D printing material consists of thousands of connected water droplets within lipid films, which can perform some of the functions of the cells inside our bodies. It could become the building blocks of a new kind of technology for delivering drugs to places where they are needed and potentially could replace damaged human tissues.

“We aren’t trying to make materials that faithfully resemble tissues but rather structures that can carry out the functions of tissues,” said Professor Hagan Bayley of Oxford University‘s Department of Chemistry, who led the research. “We’ve shown that it is possible to create networks of tens of thousands connected droplets [sic]. The droplets can be printed with protein pores to form pathways through the network that mimic nerves and are able to transmit electrical signals from one side of a network to the other.”

Each of the droplets are contained in a compartment about 50 microns in diameter, which is about five times larger than living cells. The team believes the droplets could be made smaller.

“Conventional 3-D printers aren’t up to the job of creating these droplet networks, so we custom built one in our Oxford lab to do it,” said Professor Bayley. “At the moment we’ve created networks of up to 35,000 droplets but the size of network we can make is really only limited by time and money. For our experiments we used two different types of droplet, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t use 50 or more different kinds.”

The droplet networks can be designed to fold themselves into different shapes after printing, which could be set up to resemble muscle movement.

“We have created a scalable way of producing a new type of soft material. The printed structures could in principle employ much of the biological machinery that enables the sophisticated behavior of living cells and tissues,” said Gabriel Villar, who is the lead author of the paper and builder of the 3-D printer.

More research is looking into 3-D printing technology, including one group that wants to use it to help recycle. A team from Michigan Technological University’s (MTU) is working on a device that takes trash like plastic milk jugs and turns them into 3-D printing material.

“Open-source 3-D printers have created enormous price competition for rapid prototyping businesses,” Joshua Pearce, a researcher on the project, told redOrbit. “Now for a few hundred dollars you can have a 3-D printer in your living room that spits out products of higher quality than what $20,000 purchased in commercial rapid prototypers even a few years ago. Costs are still dropping as printing quality improves. I am fairly confident that we are well on our way to having a 3-D printer in every home creating a real distributed and localized digital manufacturing infrastructure.”

With 3D printing material made out of both recycled material and living tissues, it is only a matter of time before these devices begin to shape our future.

Source: Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

NEUROSCIENCE

Japanese scientists can read dreams in breakthrough with MRI scans

Japanese scientists find way to use magnetic resonance imaging to unravel nighttime visions of unconscious mind in breakthrough study

Sunday, 07 April, 2013

Alex Lo and Agence France-Presse



Scientists in Japan say they can use MRI scanners to unlock some of the secrets of the unconscious mind.

Forget Freud and psychotherapy. You want to read dreams, get an MRI and a pattern recognition program for your computer.

Scientists in Japan say they have found a way to "read" people's dreams, using magnetic resonance imaging scanners to unlock some of the secrets of the unconscious mind.

Researchers have managed what they said was "the world's first decoding" of nighttime visions.

In the study, published in the journal Science, researchers at the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories, in Kyoto, western Japan, used MRI scans to locate exactly, which part of the brain was active during the first moments of sleep.

They then woke up the dreamer and asked him or her what images they had seen, a process that was repeated 200 times. These answers were compared with the brain maps that the MRI scanner produced.

Researchers were then able to predict what images the volunteers had seen with a 60 per cent accuracy rate, rising to more than 70 per cent with around 15 specific items including men, words and books, they said.



Illustration: Lau kuen

"We have concluded that we successfully decoded some kinds of dreams with a distinctively high success rate," said Yukiyasu Kamitani, a senior researcher at the laboratories and head of the study team. "I believe it was a key step towards reading dreams more precisely."

The subject of centuries of speculation that has captivated humanity since ancient times, dreams are hard to study. Experiments with mice have shown they experienced dreamless sleep and dreaming, the content of which can be supplied by memories. But animals cannot confirm what they have dreamed about.

Also, rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep - the stage richest in dreams - usually only starts about 90 minutes into sleep. This makes it difficult to collect data, such as having to wake up the subject. Conventional MRI, alas, is noisy.

The Japanese researchers sidestepped these issues by recording the brain activities of three adult male volunteers during the early stages of sleep. They were repeatedly awakened and asked for details about what they had experienced when asleep. A recall by a volunteer cited in the paper said: "There were persons, about three persons, inside some sort of hall. There was a male, a female and maybe like a child. Ah, it was like a boy, a girl and a mother. I don't think that there was any colour."

After gathering 200 such reports from the volunteers, the researchers used a lexical database to group the dreamed objects in general categories, such as street, furniture and girl. The participants were then asked to look at images of things in those categories while their brains were scanned. Computer algorithms then matched these patterns of brain activity with those general object categories.

Once the computer had been programmed to make these matches, it scanned the subjects to assign object categories to the detected brain activities. On average, the computer program made accurate object matching in a dream 70 per cent of the time, a rate high enough to convince the researchers that it was not achieved by chance or luck.

"It's striking work," Vanderbilt University cognitive psychologist Frank Tong told the Science journal. "It's a demonstration that brain activity during dreaming is very similar to activity during wakefulness."

Tong, who was not involved in the research, said it could lead to a better understanding of what the brain did during different states of sleep, such as those experienced by coma patients.

Kamitani first revealed his team's work in October at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans.

They find that the same parts of the brain are used to process visual patterns, whether the person is awake or asleep. He believes this may explain why dreams are often so vivid to the dreamers. "Our study shows that during dreaming, some brain areas show activity patterns similar to those elicited by pictures of related content," Kamitani told the conference in October.

"Thus using a database of picture-elicited brain activity and a pattern recognition algorithm, we can read out or decode what a person might be seeing from brain scans during dreaming."

He argues that further research should reveal not only simple patterns, but more dynamic and emotional aspects of dreaming.


Paralyzed Dogs Walk Again After Cell Transplant
February 04, 2013

By Dr. Becker

The University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council’s Regenerative Medicine Centre at the University of Edinburgh have collaborated to develop a unique type of cell to regenerate damaged sections of dogs’ spines.

Previous research with lab animals established that olfactory ensheathing cells (OEC) – cells in the nose – can help regenerate the parts of nerve cells that transmit signals between damaged and healthy tissues in the spinal cord. In the nose, the cells have special properties that give them the ability to support the growth of nerve fibers that form pathways between the nose and brain.

Study Evaluates Effectiveness of Nose Cell Transplants

The scientists who developed the cell published a study in the neurology journal Brain in November 20121 . It details the first double blind, randomized controlled trial to evaluate the effectiveness of OEC cell transplants to improve the mobility of real-life canine patients with spontaneous, accidental spinal cord injuries.

There were 34 dogs in the study, all of which had suffered severe spinal cord injury. A year or more after their injuries, they were unable to use their back legs or feel pain in their hindquarters. Many were dachshunds, a breed especially prone to spinal cord problems. Dogs are more likely than humans to suffer a spinal cord injury due to a slipped disc, which in humans is typically a relatively minor condition.

The dogs were separated into two groups. One group had their own olfactory ensheathing cells injected at the site of their injuries. The second group was injected with just the fluid in which the cells were transplanted.

The dogs were held for observation for 24 hours after the injections, at which time they were returned to their owners. From there they were tested each month for neurological function and evaluation of their gait, which was done using a treadmill and a harness for safety.

The researchers were especially interested in the ability of the dogs to coordinate movement between their front and back legs.

Very Encouraging Results

The first group of dogs – those who received the injection with actual cells – showed significant improvement over the other group. They were able to move limbs that had been paralyzed prior to the injection, and were also able to coordinate movement of their back legs with their front legs.

This result proved that in this group of dogs, neuronal messages were once again being transmitted across the damaged part of the spinal cord. Unfortunately, researchers discovered the new nerve connections were traveling over short distances along the spinal cord and not over long enough distances to connect the spinal cord with the brain.

Some of the dogs in the study regained control of their bowels and bladder, although not a significant number.

Mrs. May Hay, who owns Jasper, one of the dogs in the study, said:

“Before the trial, Jasper was unable to walk at all. When we took him out we used a sling for his back legs so that he could exercise the front ones. It was heartbreaking. But now we can’t stop him whizzing round the house and he can even keep up with the two other dogs we own. It’s utterly magic.”

See Jasper video at link: http://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/201. Here’s Jasper before and after the injection of OEC cells:

Cell Transplants in Humans on the Horizon


Robin Franklin, co-author of the study OEC study said:

“Our findings are extremely exciting because they show for the first time that transplanting these types of cell into a severely damaged spinal cord can bring about significant improvement. We’re confident that the technique might be able to restore at least a small amount of movement in human patients with spinal cord injuries but that’s a long way from saying they might be able to regain all lost function. It’s more likely that this procedure might one day be used as part of a combination of treatments, alongside drug and physical therapies, for example.”

Synthetic Biology and its Promise

Link to Video: Synthetic Biology Explained Synthetic Biology and its Promise

Synthetic Biology is going to be huge all over the world very soon. No wonder, the promise is incredible. According to Jeurgen Pleiss, possible applications of synthetic biology include:

1. Genetic circuits. The BioBrick project initiated at MIT seeks to assemble a set of standardized DNA parts that encode basic biological functions. The “Registry of Standard Biological Parts” includes genes for transcription factors and enzymes, promoter and enhancer elements, ribosome binding sites, and terminators. This registry describes the sequence of the individual bricks, a quantitative description of their input–output properties, and a concept of how to connect them, the “biowiring”. Each element can be considered as a logical circuit, an inverter, or a NAND or a NOR gate. By combining logical gates and by wiring them using orthogonal, highly specific gene products, artificial genetic circuits have been constructed with predetermined behavior. Projects at the international Genetically Engineering Machine (iGEM) competition are examples of genetic circuits.

2. Protein design. The ultimate goal is the complete de novo design of proteins. The methods are based on design tools that evaluate the compatibility of a protein sequence with a given structure. The vision of protein design is a modular approach to the design of new biomaterials with desired properties. Although all protein design efforts use the 20 amino acids as basic parts, de novo design is not limited to naturally occurring amino acids. By using expression platforms with expanded genetic code, single unnatural amino acids can be incorporated by in vivo or in vitro protein biosynthesis. Thus, the synthetic potential is considerably enhanced. However, the primary goal of protein design is not to compete with natural structural diversity. In line with the premises of synthetic biology, it would be desirable to identify a minimal set of robust and versatile scaffolds. In a modular design strategy, these basic parts would then be combined into more complex devices which are then modified to function as enzyme, power generator, signaling device, mechanical motor, or structural protein. The major application would be cheap and effective drugs. 3. Platform technologies. Like synthetic bacteriophages with optimized genome organization. The synthetic gene circuits and the production of designed proteins are implemented into living cells, thus allowing applications in biotransformation and biosensing. The ideal cellular platform should be of minimal complexity. Minimization of genomes is expected to simplify the cellular platform. 4. Engineering of pathways. Signaling pathways are characterized by the modular architecture of the proteins involved in signal transduction. Kinetics and thermodynamics of intermodular recognition are crucial to specificity and information flow. Production of natural products by synthetic gene clusters is considered as a promising application for synthetic biology.

Synthetic Neurobiology

Ed Boyden: The brain is like a computer, and we can fix it with nanorobots.

Synthetic biology has the potential to replace or improve drug therapies for a wide range of brain disorders

Ed Boyden heads the Synthetic Neurobiology Group at MIT Media Lab. He is working on developing technologies and tools for "analyzing and engineering brain circuits" – to reveal which brain neurons are involved in different cognitive processes and using this knowledge to treat brain disorders.

What is synthetic neurobiology?

The synthetic biology part is about taking molecules from the natural world and figuring how to make them into little machines that we can use to address complex brain problems.

Moreover, if we can synthesize the computation of the brain and write information to it, that allows us to test our understanding of the brain and fix disorders by controlling the processes within – running a piece of software on the brain as if it is a computer.

The brain as computer… we probably shouldn't be surprised that your initial training was in electrical engineering and physics?

Training as a physicist was very helpful because you are trained to think about things both at a logical and intuitive level. Electrical engineering was great too because neurons are electrical devices and we have to think about circuits and networks. I was interested in big unknowns and the brain is one of the biggest, so building tools that allow us to regard the brain as a big electrical circuit appealed to me.

So do you have a "circuit board" of the brain?

It's not even known how many kinds of cells there are in the brain. If you were looking for a periodic table of the brain, there is no such thing. I really like to think of the brain as a computer. Let's take an iPhone – there are millions around the world, they all have the same map but at this moment they are all doing a different computations – from firing birds at walls to reading an email. You need more than just a map to understand a computation.

So how do you find out about the functions of the different neurons?

We have collaboration with a team at Georgia Institute of Technology to build robots to help us analyse the brain at single-cell resolution. We hope to use these robots to harvest the contents of cells to figure out what their properties are. The tip of this robot is a millionth of a metre wide.

And what would you do with the data?

One strategy we are working on is what you might call high throughput screening (HTS) for the living brain. HTS has been used for decades to, for example, screen for genes important for a biological process. But how do you do it in the living brain? We are working on technologies like those robotics or three-dimensional interfaces which would allow you to target information to thousands of points of the brain, so you could determine which circuits are important to a given cognitive process or fixing a disorder. Robots and interfaces – sounds invasive.

Some degree of invasiveness might not be the end of the world – 250,000 people have some kind of neural implant already, such as deep brain stimulators or cochlear implants. Some people perceive that invasive treatment done subtly could be more desirable than something that you have to wear all the time like an helmet.

Have your techniques been used in live experiments?

In a collaboration led by Alan Horsager from the University of Southern California, we tried to restore vision to a blind eye. There are lots of examples of blind eyes where the photoreceptors have gone: in such a case, there's no drugs you can give because there's nothing to bind to. So we thought, why don't we build an entire suite of tools that would deliver the gene for a light-activated protein into a targeted set of cells and try to restore visual behavior. Neurons are electrical devices. Normally, photo-sensory cells in the retina capture light and transform them into electrical signals, which can then be processed by the retina and relayed to the rain. But what if the photo-sensory cells are gone? What we did was take a light-sensitive protein from a species of green algae, which converts light into electrical signals, and installed it in spared cells in the retina of a blind mouse. Then, the newly photosensitive cells in the retina could capture light. Basically the previously blind retina became a camera. We found we could take a blind mouse that couldn't solve a maze problem and by making its retina light sensitive, it could navigate a fairly complex maze and go right to the target. Does this show the mouse has conscious vision? I don't know if we can really say that, but it does show these mice can make cognitive use of visual information.

How far are we from using these techniques on humans?

My lab is focused on inventing the tools. But of the people who are pursuing blindness treatments there are at least five groups who have stated plans or started ventures to take these technologies and move to humans.

What are the advantages of these technologies over drugs?

They can help solve problems where drugs can't. And maybe they can help people find better drugs. There are many disorders where a specific kind of cell in the brain is atrophied or degenerates. If we can get information to that cell, then we might more accurately be able to correct a brain disorder while minimizing side-effects. A drug might affect cells that are normal as well as cells that need to be fixed, causing side effects.

And these tools could also be used to aid drug discovery?

Drugs have a lot of good things about them – they are portable, non-invasive, they don't need a specialist to administer them. Suppose we could go through the brain with an array of light sources and track down which specific molecules on specific cells are most impactful for treating a disorder. If we can find a drug that can bind to that molecule, (although only 1 in 10 molecules are bind-able) maybe we could develop drugs that affect specific classes of cell in the brain and not others.

Synthetic Neurobiology Group: Ed Boyden, Principal Investigator

syntheticneurobiology.org/