Sleep is an essential function of the human body. But the mechanisms that induce animals, including humans, to fall asleep are poorly understood.

Gero Miesenboeck, MD, a physiology professor at the University of Oxford, recently explained that optogenetics, a new technology that allows scientists to turn on and turn off electrical activity in specific brain cells by making them reactive to light, has uncovered the specific neurons involved in the sleep homeostat, the so-called sleep switch, that compels us to hit the hay.

Three of the scientists whose pioneering research helped create optogenetics — Miesenboeck, Peter Hegemann and Karl Deisseroth — all were named the winners of the 2016 Massry Prize. In a series of lectures at the Keck School of Medicine of USC on Oct. 20, the trio of scientists focused on a few of the ways that optogenetics, considered one of the most significant advances in brain research in generations, is advancing understanding of the inner workings of the brain.

Hegemann, PhD, professor of biophysics at the Humboldt University of Berlin, discussed ongoing research on channelrhodopsins, proteins that make cells respond to flashes of light. Hegemann has engineered a variety of opsins which are helping to improve the quality of research done by neuroscientists around the world.

Diesseroth, MD, PhD, professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, described the research in his laboratory that has revealed which neurons are involved in risky behavior and those that bring about anxiety. He also discussed advances in optogenetics that allow scientists to activate several cells at once and to control the intensity of the activation, which is lending further nuance to their research.

Though developed to illuminate the mysterious workings of neurons and neuronal connections in the brain, optogenetics is being used to understand and possibly treat other parts of the body. Hegemann pointed out that optogenetic technology is being tested as a possible treatment for deafness.

The Meira and Shaul G. Massry Foundation established the Massry Prize in 1996 to recognize contributions to the biomedical sciences and the advancement of health.

By Hope Hamashige