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Researchers from Duke-NUS Medical School have discovered a new class of light-sensitive proteins that can effectively turn off brain cells with light. This breakthrough offers scientists a powerful tool to investigate brain function and explore the underlying mechanisms of neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and depression. The study, published in Nature Communications, focuses on the technique of optogenetics, where specific cells are engineered to include light-sensitive proteins that act as switches, enabling researchers to precisely control the electrical activity of these cells.

The team found that specific potassium channels, known as kalium channelrhodopsins, can serve as effective instruments for regulating brain-cell activity in experimental animals such as fish, worms, and flies. These potassium channels act as small gates on cell membranes that open when exposed to light, allowing potassium ions to flow through and quiet the activity of brain cells. This discovery provides new insights into how brain activities are regulated and offers a versatile tool for studying the brain’s functions and behaviours.

The ability to silence brain cells using light-triggered potassium channels presents exciting opportunities for studying the interactions between different brain regions and exploring the pathological mechanisms of various brain disorders. This innovative approach holds promise for deepening our understanding of the brain and developing more effective treatments for neurological and psychiatric conditions. By using these tools, scientists can gain valuable insights into the complexities of the brain and pave the way for future advancements in brain research.

Associate Professor Adam Claridge-Chang, the senior author of the study, highlights the versatility of these potassium channels in providing a useful way to study brain functions. The discovery of kalium channelrhodopsins, which allow potassium ions to leave neurons and trigger hyperpolarisation, provides a means to suppress or silence communication between neurons. This mechanism alters the electrical gradient across the membrane, making it challenging for neurons to generate action potentials and communicate with other cells effectively.

Professor Patrick Tan, Senior Vice-Dean for Research at Duke-NUS, emphasizes the importance of unlocking the mysteries of the brain to advance our understanding of healthy brain function and neurological disorders. By equipping scientists with better tools to study the intricate communication processes in the brain, research efforts like those of Adam Claridge-Chang and his team contribute to developing effective treatments for brain disorders. Duke-NUS Medical School’s commitment to advancing medical research and improving patient care is evident in its efforts to explore neurological and psychiatric conditions through innovative studies like this one.

Overall, the discovery of light-sensitive potassium channels that can silence brain cells offers a groundbreaking approach to investigating brain function and understanding the mechanisms of neurological and psychiatric disorders. By utilizing optogenetics techniques, researchers are able to precisely control the electrical activity of specific cells and study how different cells participate in brain circuits and behaviours. This research has the potential to deepen our understanding of the intricate communication within the brain and pave the way for new treatments for a range of brain disorders.

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