A central goal in understanding brain function is to link specific cell populations to behavioral outputs. In recent years, the selective targeting of specific neural circuits has been made possible with the development of new experimental approaches, including chemogenetics. This technique allows for the control of molecularly defined subsets of cells through engineered G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), which have the ability to activate or silence neuronal firing. Through chemogenetics, neural circuits are being linked to behavioral outputs at an unprecedented rate. Further, the coupling of chemogenetics with imaging techniques to monitor neural activity in freely moving animals now makes it possible to deconstruct the complex whole-brain networks that are fundamental to behavioral states. In this review, we highlight a specific chemogenetic application known as DREADDs (designer receptors exclusively activated by designer drugs). DREADDs are used ubiquitously to modulate GPCR activity in vivo and have been widely applied in the basic sciences, particularly in the field of behavioral neuroscience. Here, we focus on the impact and utility of DREADD technology in dissecting the neural circuitry of various behaviors including memory, cognition, reward, feeding, anxiety and pain. By using DREADDs to monitor the electrophysiological, biochemical, and behavioral outputs of specific neuronal types, researchers can better understand the links between brain activity and behavior. Additionally, DREADDs are useful in studying the pathogenesis of disease and may ultimately have therapeutic potential.
Keywords: DREADD receptors; anxiety; behavior; chemogenetics; depression; learning; optogenetics; pain.