KSJ Tracker August 26, 2013

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


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