Dr. Boyden’s research has focused on optical technologies for understanding how neurons work together to generate behavior and how their activity changes in disease states or can be changed to treat such diseases. Boyden, along with fellow laureate Karl Deisseroth, brainstormed about how microbial opsins could be used to mediate optical control of neural activity while both were students in 2000. Together, they collaborated to demonstrate the first optical control of neural activity using microbial opsins in the summer of 2004, with Deisseroth, and Boyden, performing the gene transfection and the optical stimulation respectively. At MIT, Boyden’s team developed the first optogenetic silencing (2007), the first effective optogenetic silencing in live mammals (2010), noninvasive optogenetic silencing (2014), multicolor optogenetic control (2014), and temporally precise single-cell optogenetic control (2017).
Boyden’s work has given neuroscientists the ability to precisely activate or silence brain cells to see how they contribute to pathological states or the remedy thereof. By optogenetically controlling brain cells, it has become possible to understand how specific patterns of brain activity might be used to quiet seizures, cancel out Parkinsonian tremors, activate the brain’s immune system to overcome Alzheimer’s and make other health-promoting alterations to the brain.