Optical control of neuronal activity

Annu Rev Biophys. 2010:39:329-48. doi: 10.1146/annurev.biophys.093008.131400.


Advances in optics, genetics, and chemistry have enabled the investigation of brain function at all levels, from intracellular signals to single synapses, whole cells, circuits, and behavior. Until recent years, these research tools have been utilized in an observational capacity: imaging neural activity with fluorescent reporters, for example, or correlating aberrant neural activity with loss-of-function and gain-of-function pharmacological or genetic manipulations. However, optics, genetics, and chemistry have now combined to yield a new strategy: using light to drive and halt neuronal activity with molecular specificity and millisecond precision. Photostimulation of neurons is noninvasive, has unmatched spatial and temporal resolution, and can be targeted to specific classes of neurons. The optical methods developed to date encompass a broad array of strategies, including photorelease of caged neurotransmitters, engineered light-gated receptors and channels, and naturally light-sensitive ion channels and pumps. In this review, we describe photostimulation methods, their applications, and opportunities for further advancement.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Optics and Photonics / methods*
  • Signal Transduction