Pain is a hard problem. Sure, we can throw a little morphine at pain in the short term, but researchers continue to struggle with solutions for chronic pain. New research from Stanford’s futuristic Bio-X lab looks like a light at the end of the tunnel — literally!
Put simply, a team of scientists has developed a way to turn pain on and off using light. They used a technique known as optogenetics to insert light-sensitive proteins called opsins into the nerves of lab mice. After a couple of weeks, the nerves became light-sensitive. One colour of light would increase the sensation of pain; another would decrease it. This bears huge implications in a number of fields, from neuroscience to psychology, and could help millions of people who suffer from chronic pain.
So that’s pretty awesome. What’s even more impressive is the fact that researchers made the discovery by accident. Optogenetics is a burgeoning field pioneered by Karl Deisseroth who was a co-author of a study about the new technique published this week in Nature Biotechnology. It enables scientists to control nerves using just light. Scott Delp, whose lab made the discovery, was exploring the use of optogenetics to control muscle movement when he found that the opsins were also affecting the nerves that controlled pain. “We thought ‘wow, we’re getting pain neurons, that could be really important,'” Delp said in a statement.
The excitement offered by optogenetics don’t stop at pain relief, of course. Just a few months ago, scientists also figured out how to control hunger using opsins and light therapy. Experts say the field could impact everything from brain disease to alcoholism. And they make it look so easy. [Stanford]