November 20, 2008
Young innovators are changing everything from theoretical mathematics to cancer therapy.
by Andrew Grant, Sarah Webb, Emily Anthes, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, Jullianne Pepitone, Elizabeth Svoboda.
Neuroengineer, MIT Media Lab
Certain species of bacteria and algae have genes that allow them to transform light into electrical energy. Edward Boyden, 29, has been able to show that inserting one of these genes into a neuron can make it similarly responsive. “When we illuminate these cells...we can cause them to be activated,” he says.
Having created such genetically modified neurons, Boyden is engineering brain implants that can stimulate them with light pulses. Boyden’s implants, he hopes, will be used to help control diseases like Parkinson’s, which is sometimes treated with implanted stimulators that issue electric current. “There are things that light can do that purely electric stimulators can’t,” Boyden says. With this technology, researchers can be selective about which neurons they engineer to be responsive, and an optical implant can emit light in a variety of patterns, allowing more precise control over neural circuits. E. A