What is it?
Imagine yourself on a rollercoaster. You feel exhilarated, lively, and so terrified that you might pee in your pants. Now imagine scientists implanting the DNA of a light-sensitive protein, channelrhosopsin, into specific neurons that can make you feel the same way by zapping them with flashes of light to turn them on or off. This process is called optogenetics. As crazy as it seems, this technique has proven to work. Even though it has not been tested on the human brain, scientist Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu were able to turn on specific neurons that triggered the memory of shock in mice.
In 2012, Ramirez and Liu put optogenetics to the test by using mice. It is known that when mice sense danger, they stay as still as possible and make little to no movement. This reaction is called freezing. Using this information, Ramirez and Liu put a mouse in a box and shocked it. When it was shocked, the neurons associated to that shock memory was recalled and they were able to implant channelrhodopsin into those specific neurons. Once this was done, the mouse is put into a completely different box. Since this box is not associated with the shock it had experienced in the first box, the mouse did not freeze and explored the box. Ramirez and Liu then zapped the neurons implanted with channelrhodopsin to bring back the memory of being shocked and the mouse froze. It stayed in one spot and barely moved even though it was not shocked. Through this, an artificial memory of shock was created by turning on the same neurons that were active when the mouse was actually shocked.
How and Why We Chose to Investigate Optogenetics
We chose to explore this topic because of our interest in how people function. Knowing at least 3 of us have taken IB Psychology, it’s safe to say zapping people, like Milgram did, was far from boring to us. Along with this, we all wondered about how retrieving memory, other than how our brain normally does it, would work. We wanted to find out how people felt about this topic, so we simply asked. With their permission, we interviewed several people asking of their knowledge of and opinions on optogenetics. Some of the responses are what would be expected, while others caught our eyes in a new way haha.