Optogenetics earns Stanford professor Karl Deisseroth the Keio prize in medicine
An idea that started as a long shot – using light to control the activity of the brain – has earned Karl Deisseroth the Keio prize in medicine. The technique, called optogenetics, is now widely used at Stanford and worldwide to understand the brain's wiring and to unravel behavior. Many researchers expect it will lead to medical discoveries.
Today optogenetics is a widely accepted technology for probing the inner workings of the brain, but a decade ago it was the source of some anxiety for then assistant professor of bioengineering Karl Deisseroth.
Deisseroth had sunk most of the funds he'd been given to start his lab at Stanford into a crazy idea – that with a little help from proteins found in pond scum he could turn neurons on and off in living animals, using light. If it didn't work he'd be out of funds with no published research, and likely looking for a new job.
Luckily, it worked, and has just earned Deisseroth, now the D. H. Chen Professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral science, the 2014 Keio Medical Science Prize. Thousands of labs around the world are now using optogenetics to understand and develop treatments for diseases of the brain and mental health conditions and to better understand the complex wiring of our brains.
Deisseroth described the first step of his success in a seminal paper in 2005, but it was many years and many more academic papers before he could breathe easy. "There was a period of several years when not everyone who tried optogenetics got it working," Deisseroth said. "There were some people who were skeptical about how useful it would be, and rightly so because there were a number of problems we still had to solve."
Scientists worldwide have now used optogenetics to probe addiction, depression, Parkinson's disease, autism, pain, stroke and myriad other conditions.
"Optogenetics has revolutionized neuroscience," says Rob Malenka, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. Malenka is Deisseroth's former postdoctoral advisor and is now a frequent collaborator. "It has allowed neuroscientists to manipulate neural activity in a rigorous and sophisticated way and in a manner that was unimaginable 15-20 years ago."
Deisseroth adds, "I thought it would work but wasn't sure it would quite reach this point."