Bold Vision

    Like couch potatoes everywhere, neuroscientists can now grumble if they have to get up, because three Berkeley researchers just handed them their own remote control. Rich Kramer and Ehud Isacoff from the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and Dirk Trauner from the Department of Chemistry have come up with a way to control neuron signaling from a distance, using a synthetic ion channel that they can switch on with a beam of light. Embedded in the cell membrane of a neuron, the channel is blocked by a molecular gate until it’s exposed to ultraviolet light. The gate then folds back like an accordion, triggering the neuron to begin signaling. Kramer, Isacoff, and Trauner will use their invention to study the way neurons talk to each other. This is also an exciting step toward artificial vision: in certain forms of blindness, photoreceptors in the retina cannot respond to light, although the rest of the vision pathway remains intact. Patients would rely on an electronic eyepiece to translate natural light into patterns scanned onto the retina. Synthetic channels could then be used to restore light sensitivity to neurons in the retina, bypassing failing photoreceptors and restoring visual function.

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