Novel Clinical Application of Optogenetics: Migraine Headaches

brain activity
brain activity
Optogenetic tools enable light-based modulation of genetically defined neurons and temporally precise stimulation of neural circuit activity.

The field of optogenetics has revolutionized neuroscience research. This technology, pioneered by researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in 2002 and further developed by scientists at Stanford in 2005, described in two landmark articles, how activity of genetically engineered neurons can be controlled by light.1,2

Neurons expressing light-sensitive ion channels (modified microbial opsins) can be excited or inhibited in vivo in a cell-specific manner and with high temporal precision using flashes of light delivered by fiber optic threads. Blue and yellow light activating channelrhodopsin and halorhodopsin respectively produces activation and inhibition respectively of neurons modified to express these ion channels.

Applications of optogenetics span several fields and the technology is leveraged to study mechanisms of addiction, depression, and anxiety disorders among others.3 In an article recently published in Current Neuropharmacology, Feng Tao, MD, PhD discusses how optogenetic manipulation can also be used for the study and treatment of pain, including migraine-related pain.4 Targeting neural networks involved in migraine pathophysiology using this technology shows great promise to reduce migraine-related headaches. “This technology won’t just be used for biomedical research,” Tao said in a statement. “We hope we will be able to move it into clinical trials to treat intractable pain.”

Further improvements of the technology will be necessary for human applications to allow for wireless control with sensors implanted in the brain.


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1. Zemelman BV, Lee GA, Ng M, Miesenböck G. Selective photostimulation of genetically chARGed neurons. Neuron. 2002;33(1):15-22.

2. Boyden ES, Zhang F, Bamberg E, Nagel G, Deisseroth K. Millisecond-timescale, genetically targeted optical control of neural activity. Nat Neurosci. 2005;8(9):1263-8.

3. Fenno L, Yizhar O, Deisseroth K. The development and application of optogenetics. Annu Rev Neurosci. 2011;34:389-412.

4. Liu S, Li C, Xing Y, Wang Y, Tao F. Role of neuromodulation and optogenetic manipulation in pain treatment. Curr Neuropharmacol. 2016.

This article originally appeared on Clinical Pain Advisor