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Gero Miesenböck is controlling sleep by activating and deactivating neurons in the brain.
The professor of physiology at Oxford University, who was speaking at WIRED Health in London, said that optogenetics was helping to explain the functions of the brain.
In particular, Miesenböck is looking at the impact of sleep and the reasons behind it. Optogenetics involves genetically modifying neurons in living creatures so they become light-sensitive.
Once reactive to light, neurons can be switched on and off. For Miesenböck, sleep remains "one of the great neurological mysteries". Based on research on fruit flies Miesenböck is trying to understand what causes sleep and whether it can be controlled.
Using dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter, he's been able to stimulate the flies. "Dopamine flips the sleep switch in the fly," he said. And using optogenetics, Miesenböck has been able to control when fruit flies sleep and when they wake up.
Miesenböck said that as optogenetics develops the field has two major applications: discovery and therapy. If used as a discovery tool it would "help us understand the function of the brain".
"It's possible to look for conventional medicines that can target these responsible neurons." But before the therapy can be applied using the technique there remain practical and ethical questions, he said.