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Methods Cell Biol. 2008;90:217-32. doi: 10.1016/S0091-679X(08)00811-X.

Light-activated ion channels for remote control of neural activity.

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  • 1Department of Chemistry, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts 01003-9336, USA


Light-activated ion channels provide a new opportunity to precisely and remotely control neuronal activity for experimental applications in neurobiology. In the past few years, several strategies have arisen that allow light to control ion channels and therefore neuronal function. Light-based triggers for ion channel control include caged compounds, which release active neurotransmitters when photolyzed with light, and natural photoreceptive proteins, which can be expressed exogenously in neurons. More recently, a third type of light trigger has been introduced: a photoisomerizable tethered ligand that directly controls ion channel activity in a light-dependent manner. Beyond the experimental applications for light-gated ion channels, there may be clinical applications in which these light-sensitive ion channels could prove advantageous over traditional methods. Electrodes for neural stimulation to control disease symptoms are invasive and often difficult to reposition between cells in tissue. Stimulation by chemical agents is difficult to constrain to individual cells and has limited temporal accuracy in tissue due to diffusional limitations. In contrast, ion channels that can be directly activated with light allow control with unparalleled spatial and temporal precision. The goal of this chapter is to describe light-regulated ion channels and how they have been tailored to control different aspects of neural activity, and how to use these channels to manipulate and better understand development, function, and plasticity of neurons and neural circuits.

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