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Optogenetics may be the answer to a search for temporal and spatial specificity in neuroscience. The well-known trade-off between temporal and spatial specificity might be resolved with this “combination of genetic and optical methods to achieve gain or loss of function of well-defined events in specific cells of living tissue”.

It is a technology that enables researchers to stimulate cells with light, thereby allowing for the direct control of behavior. Until now, this technique has been applied in animal research only but, as we argue, it holds promise for research in humans as well.

The idea of using light to control cells is not a recent one. Already in 1979, Francis Crick anticipated the struggle of neuroscience to target individual cells in vivo without affecting others, and he suggested light as a tool to achieve that.

Around that time it became clear that certain microorganisms possess proteins that respond to light. Oesterhelt and Stoeckenius in 1971 discovered bacteriorhodopsin, an ion-pump that can be activated by light photons.

Other members of this family were identified soon after, including halorhodopsin (Matsuno-Yagi and Mukohata, 1977) and channelrhodopsin (Nagel et al., 2002). In 2005, researchers at Karl Deisseroth's laboratory first demonstrated a single-component optogenetic system (Boyden et al., 2005), and in 2006 the term “optogenetics” was born.

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