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Associate Professor Karl Deisseroth

Associate Professor Karl Deisseroth uses light to stimulate neural circuits because it is precise and fast enough to keep up with the millisecond timing of the brain. PHOTO: Lee Abel

Novel Approaches to Neurological and Psychiatric Disease

Winter 2009

Slender beams of blue and yellow light in Karl Deisseroth's lab make worms stop in their tracks and mice turn in circles. One day, such flashes of light may reverse the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease and stroke, or counteract psychiatric illness.

Deisseroth's expertise spans the fields of bioengineering, psychiatry, and behavioral sciences, giving him a distinctive set of skills. He keenly sees the need for better tools to understand and fix the brain circuitry of distressed patients—and he possesses the engineering ability to do something about it.

The associate professor and his team have invented a method for exciting or silencing specific brain cells in freely moving animals using light. The exceptionally promising field known as optogenetics is a key facet of Bio-X NeuroVentures, a new undertaking within Stanford's interdisciplinary biosciences program led by Professor of Neurobiology Bill Newsome. Researchers aim to demystify the most complex organ in the body and pave the way for treatments yet to be imagined. A $500,000 gift from the Louise and Claude Rosenberg, Jr. Family Foundation helped launch the project.

To zero in on particular brain circuits—nerve cells grouped together to galvanize tasks such as holding a pen, reading a book, and making plans for the future—researchers must target individual nerve cells among the 100 billion that fill the brain.

The trick is to add light-sensitive genes only to the cells in the desired circuit. A flicker of light through a fiber optic filament is enough to turn those nerve cells on or off, allowing researchers to learn what the circuit does.

"We're using light and genetics as an incredibly fine tool to pull apart the complexity of the brain and direct brain circuits very precisely," says Deisseroth.

Claude and Louise RosenbergFiring neurons in a specific circuit more frequently and steadily could alleviate the loss of fine motor control experienced by Parkinson's patients or restore a depressed person's positive outlook. Extensions of the technology might also apply to cells in the heart, muscles, and pancreas.

To rapidly incubate innovative technologies and ideas, Bio-X NeuroVentures brings together researchers, engineers, computational scientists, and clinicians from multiple disciplines. This approach has proved vital to the overall Bio-X program directed by Carla Shatz, professor of biological sciences and neurobiology.

The program's goals—and its means for accomplishing them—greatly appealed to members of the Rosenberg family and the foundation.

Claude Rosenberg, '50, MBA '52, died in 2008 of Alzheimer's disease. Other neurodegenerative diseases have afflicted the family as well. Rosenberg won the Gold Spike, Stanford’s highest annual honor for alumni volunteers, as well as the Arbuckle Award from the Graduate School of Business for lifetime service. After 40 years in the investment business, including starting Rosenberg Capital Management, he went on to cofound the NewTithing Group to promote increased charitable giving in the United States. His widow, Louise, '55, has also been a longtime Stanford donor and volunteer. "All the work Bio-X is doing across disciplines is very exciting," says Linda Rosenberg Ach (Parent '12). "My father believed wholeheartedly in research and the importance of new ideas and exploration. NeuroVentures is a research leader for diseases that devastate so many families."

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