Is optogenetics the next big thing?
Investors are always looking for the next big technological breakthrough. If you can get in on the ground floor there is a lot of money to be made. The next big tech breakthroughs may well arrive courtesy of a field called optogenetics.
In brief, optogenetics technology was first developed early in the 21st century and allows scientists to instantaneously switch pathways in the brain on or off using light. Specific proteins within the brain are reactive to light, making them essentially an open door if you can target them closely enough.
This breakthrough has shown us that complex emotions and behaviours such as love, addiction or anxiety are fundamentally nothing more than different parts of our brains lighting up or diming down; it is conceivable that we can now change things in the same way we would turn a switch on or off.
Even with a basic understanding of the field, it is clear to see how revolutionary this could be. By using genetic tricks to turn light energy into electrical impulses, could we instantly heal addiction? Could we cure the lovesick, or eliminate claustrophobia?
The scale of the breakthrough is unprecedented and likely to lead to a Nobel Prize, but the possibilities really do seem endless. We have barely scratched the surface so far, and it seems likely that the technologies which eventually come out of this will be awe inspiring, and maybe even terrifying.
There are also serious ethical questions to be answered before optogenetics becomes a part of everyday life. For instance, whilst there are many obvious good things we can imagine, each of those will have an inverse which is clearly negative. If we have the switch to turn off addiction, we also have a switch to turn it on. The use will certainly need to be regulated both heavily and intelligently.
It is a long way off, but lots of smart people are putting a lot of money into optogenetics at the moment. The glimpses we have had so far show that we might be on the verge of something remarkable, and now might be the perfect time to get on board.