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What if controlling your addiction were as simple as flipping a light switch? Well, we’re not there quite yet, but if Evgeny A. Budygin, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, has anything to say about it, we will be soon. The good doctor and his team has just recently pioneered a new technique by which the dopamine reward system, that love it/hate it faculty of the mind that can plague substance abusers (or really, any addict), can be manipulated for further study: Optogenetics. According to an article recently published on Psych Central’s website :

‘With this technique, we’ve basically taken control of specific populations of dopamine cells, using light to make them respond — almost like flipping a light switch,’ said Budygin. ‘These data provide us with concrete direction about what kind of patterns of dopamine cell activation might be most effective to target alcohol drinking.’

In the past, researchers would implant an electrode into the brain of patients to manipulate their dopamine stimulation and mimic the way brain cells get excited, but this would inadvertently activate all of the cells in that area as well, making it hard to pinpoint specific dopamine populations. Think of aiming at a target, blindfolded, with a shotgun. Optogenetics, originally devised to understand how the tiny green algae that give pond scum its distinctive color detect and use light to grow, is akin to using a high-grade laser.

‘With optogenetics, we were able to selectively control a specific population of dopamine cells in a part of the brain-reward system. Using this technique, we discovered distinct patterns of dopamine cell activation that seemed to be able to disrupt the alcohol-drinking behavior of the rats.’

Weiner goes on to say that optogenetics’ translational value can be further applied for deep-brain stimulation in the treatment of alcoholism, which up until now has been performed successfully (notably with regards to anxiety and depression), but with little understanding.

What do you think?