Karl Deisseroth profile: using light to control neurons, understand brain diseases

Image from the NIH

Nature ran a great profile of our grantee Karl Deisseroth, who has a New Faculty Award to develop ways of controlling neurons derived from stem cells. He’s the Stanford bioengineer who recently made such a splash with his see-through brain (that’s the technology on display in this most awesome video ever).

Deisseroth’s career path changed during a medical school rotation in psychiatry:

“Everything changed when I did my psychiatry rotation. A person can be right in front of you who looks intact, not obviously injured, and yet their brain is constructing for them a completely different reality. At the same time I saw how deep the suffering was.”

His work since then reflects that interest in understanding and treating diseases of the brain. Many stem cell projects involve maturing stem cells in a lab dish to become a type of neuron that goes awry in particular diseases. These studies–called disease-in-a-dish–have been effective for learning how diseases form and beginning to develop drugs, but Deisseroth told Nature that he wanted to understand those functions in the context of the whole brain. That’s easier said than done, given that studying an actual functioning brain is hardly straightforward.

That’s where the bioengineering comes in.

Deisseroth and his collaborators found a way of getting neurons to incorporate a type of protein from algae that is sensitive to light. Researchers can then use a certain wavelength of light to essentially turn those cells on and off. As part of his New Faculty Award, he and his team used the technology to, among other things, understand which neurons should be stimulated to reduce symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The technique, called optogenetics, was named Method of the Year in 2011. (Bruce Goldman at Stanford wrote a remarkably understandable story about this complicated technique and its discovery.)

In his public description of his New Faculty Award, Deisseroth wrote:

This process of “stem cell differentiation” is slow, costly, laborious, variable, prone to error and contamination, and ultimately rate-limiting in the long road leading to clinical translation.

Although his work hasn’t eliminated all of those barriers, it’s a significant step toward the ultimate goal of developing stem cell therapies for the types of diseases that first turned his attention to understanding the brain.

A.A.

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