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26Aug 2013

John Horgan: The end of optogenetics.

John Horgan: The end of optogenetics.

In the nearly two decades since he declared the end of science, the science writer John Horgan is still finding things to write about, which suggests that reports of science's death were greatly exaggerated.

We're fortunate that Horgan is still in the game, because he's a most intelligent and thoughtful contrarian. I always find him interesting to read, although it's a rather curious experience. I agree with much of what he writes, but I rarely come to the same conclusions.

His Aug. 20 takedown of optogenetics in his Scientific American blog is a case in point. Optogenetics is a new technique in which neurons can be altered to respond to light, enabling researchers to easily turn neurons on and off. As Horgan writes, the technique has sparked great excitement: "Researchers are exploring the potential of optogenetics for understanding and treating a wide range of brain-based disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder...depression, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s and post-traumatic stress disorder." Who wouldn't be excited?

Horgan, for one. He says optogenetics is overselling itself as a potential treatment for mental illness, when those disorders are so poorly understood that nobody yet knows which neurons to turn on or off to treat them. I agree with him. He also questions whether optogenetic treatments would be any safer than using electrodes, and I think that's a fair question.

Horgan then argues that "blue-sky" technology such as this will likely be reserved for the wealthy. And here's where he and I part company.

Horgan might be right; perhaps optogenetics will produce another spike in healthcare costs while helping only the rich. But is that an argument for not doing the research? Optogenetics might get cheaper; technology has a way of doing that. When Horgan proclaimed the end of science, the cost of sequencing a human genome was far beyond the reach of even the wealthy. It's now cheaper than a root canal. Horgan is premature when he lumps optogenetics with other "expensive, high-tech tests and treatments" that "have driven up costs of medicine while often impairing people's health." Optogenetics should be innocent until proven guilty.

Technology can be expensive, but not nearly as expensive as the price tags doctors and hospitals put on it. If Horgan is concerned about healthcare costs, he would do better to proclaim the end of larcenous hospital billing practices, not optogenetics.

-Paul Raeburn



Honestly I don't see optogenics going anywhere. Similar devices have already made a difference in lives of people who suffer from CP. Although it is electricity instead of light that is stimulating the brain, you can see a huge difference when the implant is switched from on to off. The person gets uncontrollable shaking until the device is switch back on. I think the real fear is what will happen when the technology is advanced to where we can manipulate the actions of people. Right now we have such a limited understanding of what exactly is happening with the light simulation. I'm not much for the huffingtonpost but they had a interesting article with an interview with Dr. Deisseroth one of the leaders in optogenics research.

Read here:

Hi John, many thanks for the link-back. I’ve written a short reply to your points


Unfortunately I don’t know enough about Mayberg and the criticisms of her work to comment on that particular aspect of your article. My main point is that your issues seem to be about hyped-science in general rather than optogenetics in particular, but you’ve chosen to focus on optogenetics for whatever reason. I think this is a problem exacerbated by funding incentives, and is bigger than a particular field of research.

First, what exactly is optogenetics? The technique is barely a decade old, born of the seemingly far-fetched notion of using light to selectively control neural activity that was originally proposed in the late 1990s. Less than a decade later, in 2005, a group at Stanford University led by Karl Deisseroth published a practical way to actually accomplish the feat.

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