Scientists at the Salk Institute, USA have discovered a way to control brain cells using ultrasonic sound waves. Their method, which they call ‘sonogenetics’, has been applied to the tiny worm Caenorhabditis elegans, and can pave the way for advanced research into brain function by letting researchers target individual neurons in the brain.
This is a welcome addition to the burgeoning field of neuroscience research that uses various strategies to specifically target single neurons or neuronal subpopulations in the brain. A whole field of evidence has confirmed that neurons in the brain are surprisingly heterogenous, and even neurons situated next to each other can be performing quite different functions. Teasing out the functions of whole circuits requires specialized techniques for perturbing the activities of small groups of neurons. Being able to activate and inactivate neurons in a controlled manner is of critical importance not only for understanding how the brain works, but also for figuring out what goes wrong in case of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s disease or bipolar disorder.