Neurobiology has entered a new era in which optical methods are challenging electrophysiological techniques for their value in measuring and manipulating neuronal activity. This change is occurring largely because of the development of new photochemical tools, some synthesized by chemists and some provided by nature. This review is focused on the three types of photochemical tools for neuronal control that have emerged in recent years. Caged neurotransmitters, including caged glutamate, are synthetic molecules that enable highly localized activation of neurotransmitter receptors in response to light. Natural photosensitive proteins, including channelrhodopsin-2 and halorhodopsin, can be exogenously expressed in neurons and enable rapid photocontrol of action potential firing. Synthetic small molecule photoswitches can bestow light-sensitivity on native or exogenously expressed proteins, including K+ channels and glutamate receptors, allowing photocontrol of action potential firing and synaptic events. At a rapid pace, these tools are being improved and new tools are being introduced, thanks to molecular biology and synthetic chemistry. The three families of photochemical tools have different capabilities and uses, but they all share in enabling precise and noninvasive exploration of neural function with light.
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