Proteins with engineered sensitivities to light are infiltrating the biological mechanisms by which neurons generate and detect electrochemical signals. Encoded in DNA and active only in genetically specified target cells, these proteins provide selective optical interfaces for observing and controlling signaling by defined groups of neurons in functioning circuits, in vitro and in vivo. Light-emitting sensors of neuronal activity (reporting calcium increase, neurotransmitter release, or membrane depolarization) have begun to reveal how information is represented by neuronal assemblies, and how these representations are transformed during the computations that inform behavior. Light-driven actuators control the electrical activities of central neurons in freely moving animals and establish causal connections between the activation of specific neurons and the expression of particular behaviors. Anchored within mathematical systems and control theory, the combination of finely resolved optical field sensing and finely resolved optical field actuation will open new dimensions for the analysis of the connectivity, dynamics, and plasticity of neuronal circuits, and perhaps even for replacing lost—or designing novel—functionalities.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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