Optogenetic excitation of neurons with channelrhodopsins: light instrumentation, expression systems, and channelrhodopsin variants

Prog Brain Res. 2012:196:29-47. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-59426-6.00002-1.


Classically, temporally precise excitation of membrane potential in neurons within intact tissue can be achieved by direct electrical stimulation or indirect electrical stimulation induced by changing magnetic fields. Both of these approaches have a predetermined selectivity based on the biophysical properties of the nervous tissue and membrane in the region of the stimulation. A recent advance in selective excitation of neurons is the "optogenetic" approach utilizing channelrhodopsins (ChRs). By expressing the light-responsive ChR in neurons using cell-type selective promoters or other methods, specific neurons can be depolarized by light in a temporally precise manner with millisecond resolution even if their membrane biophysical properties are less favorable for electrical stimulation. In addition, ChRs can be used to depolarize nonneuronal cells in the nervous tissue, and to sustain depolarization over a prolonged period of time, both of which cannot be achieved with electrical or magnetic stimulations. To conduct an experiment with ChR, experimenters need to make the correct choices on the three main components to such an experiment: the expression system, the illumination source, and the ChR variant used. This chapter aims to provide some discussions on the current developments of these aspects of the experiments. To express ChR in neurons, the common expression systems include viral vectors, in utero electroporation, and transgenic animals, each with their advantages and limitations regarding the cost, expression pattern, and the required effort. In terms of the instrumentation, an illumination source that is capable of providing the desired wavelength with high intensity is crucial for the success of the experiment. The important factors regarding the light source used include the cost, light density output, efficiency for fiber coupling for in vivo rodent experiments, and the available methods to control light intensity and onset/termination. The third component of the experiment is the choice of the appropriate variants of ChR. Many novel ChR variants with unique properties have been engineered, and it can be difficult for the experimenters to choose the right variant with the desired properties for their experiments, as some information necessary for the experimenter to make the right selection is often incomplete or unavailable. Currently, the available variants for neuroscientific research are wild-type ChR2, ChR2+H134R, ChETA, VChR1, SFO, ChD, ChEF, ChIEF, ChRGR, CatCh, and TC. The features and limitations of these different variants are presented here. Lastly, this chapter will provide some suggestion for the future development of the light source, expression system, and the development of the "next" generation of ChRs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Light Signal Transduction / genetics
  • Molecular Imaging / instrumentation*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Photic Stimulation / instrumentation*
  • Rhodopsin / genetics*


  • Rhodopsin