Waynflete Professor of Physiology and fellow of Magdalen College.
I believe it’s the most fascinating area of biology and perhaps of science in general. We have no idea how the brain works, so there is huge potential for discovery.
What do you work on?
We are trying to understand how intelligent behaviour emerges when many nerve cells, which have little intelligence of their own, are wired together. We have little notion of what makes brain circuits smart, even so-called ‘simple’ ones like those of the fruit flies we study.
How are you going to find out? We poke here and flip a switch there and see what happens. But this is difficult with the brain because we don’t know where the switches are, and information processing, routing and storage all appear to be inseparably intertwined. Our method allows us to write and read information to and from precisely identified nodes in the tangled network of cells, by using light-controlled biomolecules and light to spy on and control signalling in the brain.
Why is this method special?
Because it is a powerful mix of optical communication and genetic engineering. Animals are bred so that specific brain cells either transmit information when exposed to light or emit a flash of light when they transmit information, so we can read and change the mind. In our case, the mind of a fly.
How is optogenetics different from traditional neuroscientific research methods?
Neuroscience has generally been rather observational. People would record electrical signals from a single nerve cell and argue about how the signals related to perception or behaviour. I realised that being able to control neural circuits directly and precisely would settle many arguments.
Could the ‘mind control’ potential of optogenetics have an impact on future medical treatments?
People tend to associate ‘mind control’ with our optogentic interventions but forget that there is no qualitative difference between influencing brain function through physical or chemical means. But optogenetic therapies would require the introduction of a foreign gene into the brain. At present, there are technical, ethical and legal barriers to human gene therapy.
Are there legal and ethical opportunities for optogenetics to benefit human health?
The most immediate opportunity is to identify new targets for drugs. Finding compounds that regulate certain cell groups may lead to new or better treatments.
What are your future plans?
A new research centre in Oxford, the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, where we will work to unlock the elementary logic of animal behaviour and report our findings in papers that will entice our readers through striking turn of phrase and visual imagery. There is a strong aesthetic component to everything we do.