Genetically encoded molecular tools for light-driven silencing of targeted neurons
The ability to silence, in a temporally precise fashion, the electrical activity of specific neurons embedded within intact brain tissue, is important for understanding the role that those neurons play in behaviors, brain disorders, and neural computations. “Optogenetic” silencers, genetically encoded molecules that, when expressed in targeted cells within neural networks, enable their electrical activity to be quieted in response to pulses of light, are enabling these kinds of causal circuit analyses studies. Two major classes of optogenetic silencer are in broad use in species ranging from worm to monkey: light-driven inward chloride pumps, or halorhodopsins, and light-driven outward proton pumps, such as archaerhodopsins and fungal light-driven proton pumps. Both classes of molecule, when expressed in neurons via viral or other transgenic means, enable the targeted neurons to be hyperpolarized by light. We here review the current status of these sets of molecules, and discuss how they are being discovered and engineered. We also discuss their expression properties, ionic properties, spectral characteristics, and kinetics. Such tools may not only find many uses in the quieting of electrical activity for basic science studies but may also, in the future, find clinical uses for their ability to safely and transiently shut down cellular electrical activity in a precise fashion.