Silencing Neurons with Light

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Science  25 Apr 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6182, pp. 369-370
DOI: 10.1126/science.1253616

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Neural networks control the activity of living individuals as central processing units control the functions of modern computers. In a neuronal circuit, information is transmitted through neurons in the form of an action potential, which is the electric potential difference between the inside and the outside of a neuron. Ion channel proteins in the neuronal membrane act as molecular devices that create and regulate action potentials. A technology called optogenetics (1) allows neuronal circuits to be manipulated by a combination of optics and genetically targeted incorporation of microbial retinal binding proteins, called opsins (2), into neurons. On pages 409 and 420 of this issue, Wietek et al. and Berndt et al. (3, 4) use structure-based molecular engineering to invert the charge selectivity of different opsins, channelrhodopsins from algae, resulting in much improved neuron silencers for use in optogenetics.