Optogenetics is probably the biggest buzzword in neuroscience today. It refers to techniques that use genetic modification of cells so they can be manipulated with light. The net result is a switch that can turn brain cells off and on like a bedside lamp.

The technique has enabled neuroscientists to achieve previously unimagined feats and two of its inventors—Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Ed Boyden of Massachusetts Institute of Technology—received a Breakthrough Prize in the life sciences on November 8 in recognition of their efforts. The technology is able to remotely control motor circuits—one example is having an animal run in circles at the flick of a switch. It can even label and alter memories that form as a mouse explores different environments. These types of studies allow researchers to firmly establish a cause-and-effect relationship between electrical activity in specific neural circuits and various aspects of behavior and cognition, making optogenetics one of the most widely used methods in neuroscience today.”