Answers to Ask the Researcher

Karl Deisseroth, M.D., Ph.D. - Brain and behavior research expert on depression
Karl Deisseroth, M.D., Ph.D.

Can individuals volunteer to be part of the BRAIN Initiative? I’d be interested in having my brain scanned and mapped.

Though the programs that will be funded by the BRAIN initiative have not yet been determined, the best way to contribute along those lines would be to explore nearby academic neuroscience research centers, like those at universities, where there are (and will be) many carefully designed and exciting research studies involving human brain scanning and mapping and where volunteer subjects are very much appreciated.

I know you treat people like my young adult son, who has schizophrenia. None of the experts we consulted ever asked about his childhood behavior patterns, which we knew were not completely right. Is it possible to intervene early to curb severe mental illness later in life?

Indeed, we are now beginning to understand that people with neuropsychiatric diseases like schizophrenia that are diagnosed at a particular point in life actually can show behavioral signs much earlier. Though we have a long way to go, many studies are now seeking to define such signs, including in schizophrenia, which could serve as “biomarkers” to help us identify and intervene early in the course of these disorders. Of course it is important to carefully validate such possible markers in large populations; it would not be a good idea to intervene in people with a low probability of developing the disease, since any intervention would bring with it new risks and side effects. But even without knowledge of a safe and effective early intervention, simply understanding early biomarkers would also help us understand these mysterious diseases better, which would certainly help in creating better cures for people even diagnosed later in life.

Can you envision ways in which the optogenetics technology that you invented might eventually improve the design or use of psychiatric medications?

The major challenge we face in psychiatry is understanding. Psychiatric disease represents the leading cause of disability worldwide, but major pharmaceutical companies are withdrawing from developing new treatments, and many are shutting down psychiatry programs, a situation with major medical, social and economic implications. Reasons cited include the lack of neural circuit-level understanding of symptom states, which impairs identification of new treatments and development of predictive animal models. Part of the solution to this challenge may include technologies such as optogenetics, which has primary value as a research tool well-suited to probing circuit-level causality in complex behaviors. Identifying which patterns of circuit activity are actually causally involved in eliciting normal or pathological behaviors may provide a new kind of target, around which investigators can screen and build therapies (whether pharmacological, surgical, or electromagnetic).

Have any of the labs that are using your invention CLARITY to more precisely observe the brain after death found things that were particularly surprising in your view?

Though CLARITY technology is so new that these kinds of studies have not yet been published, indeed there are early reports of unusual and surprising three-dimensional structures in some patient-derived brain tissue. A great many laboratories around the world now have CLARITY operational, and it will be interesting and exciting to see what emerges in the decades to come.