A paper came out recently that looks at optogenetics in a way I would have never thought of1. It’s funny how much effort we put into lasers and optics and everything in order to deliver light into a mouse’s brain, because visible light just doesn’t pass through tissue well enough for us to try activating from outside the brain (Figure 1A). But it never occurred to me to use non-visible wavelengths of light for the purpose; in this case it’s x-ray optogenetics.
Obviously, this comes with its own challenges – if a wavelength of light passes straight through tissue, it can’t interact with the proteins, which includes any opsins. So, how do you do this? Well, today we’ll find out from Matsubara et al.1
I actually remember an undergraduate practical that gave the answer to this, although my hazy memories suggest it was gamma waves from a radioactive isotope, rather than X-rays. Either way, the principle remains, which is the use of “scintillant”, which as far as I know is a fancy word for a chemical that is fluorescent under high energy light waves.
Anyway, Matsubara et al. show us the effects of UV and X-rays on their scintillant, which is Ce:GAGG, which emits yellow light upon stimulation (Figure 1B). They then test this scintillant for activating opsins in cultured cells, and find robust activation of the red-shifted opsins (Figure 1C/D), particularly of our favourite super-sensitive red-shifted opsin chRmine2.
After some optimisation in brain slices, Matsubara et al. then take their system in vivo, and inject AAV-DIO-chRmine and their scintillant into the VTA of a DAT-cre mouse (Figure 2A). They get nice c-fos induction from X-ray stimulation of their model system (Figure 2B/C).
After next showing that their scintillant particles are not cytotoxic when injected into mouse brains, they test their opto system in a conditioned place preference experiment with stimulation of the VTA (Figure 3A). Due to the nature of X-rays, they set up the in vivo experiment in lead-lined 2-compartment preference cages (Figure 3B/C).
They then show that the mice show increased place preference with chRmine stimulation (Figure 3D), and decreased place preference with stGtACR1 (Figure 3E), as expected.
I’m also happy to report that the authors checked for long-term damage to the mice caused by exposure to X-rays. They found no change to locomotor activity or blood-brain barrier function.
However, after prolonged stimulation with the high-dose X-rays, mice did have reduced numbers of immature neurones in the detate gyrus. The low dose flashing of X-rays had no impact though, so I think this method would be fine to use so long as you were careful with your experimental planning to limit the X-ray exposure of the animals.
Having said that, x-ray optogenetics is not a technique that I ever envisage myself actually wanting to use. There is a high level of difficulty and complexity, which I don’t think outweigh the improvements to animal behaviour. I think other wireless opto methods have a much better balance of complexity to impact on the animal.
1. Matsubara et al. Nat Commun 22(1), 4478 (2021) Remote control of neural function by X-ray-induced scintillation.