Optogenetics is a tool that is being used extensively to learn how the brain works. In a study recently published in Nature, a research team was able to use optogenetic techniques to modify taste sensations in mice. By stimulating with light genetically altered areas of the brain, they were able to make the mice experience either bitter or sweet when drinking water. By leaving the taste centers alone but turning off their connection to the amygdala, they observed that the emotional response to taste was removed. The mice could distinguish correctly between bitter and sweet but exhibited no preference for sweet and no avoidance of bitter.
This suggests that optogenetics could be used in therapeutic ways. Permanent weight loss could be achieved by manipulating taste centers so we don’t crave the foods that tend to make us fat. Perhaps addictions of all types could be controlled by using optogenetics to interrupt the neural connections that ascribe pleasure to addictive activities. That potential could give rise to entirely new types of medical devices.