Sunday, January 10, 2010

On and Off : In the Brain

Folks of the older generation, including some of my own generation, still subscribe to the habit of having fluorescent lights , or as we call them, "tubes" , for lighting up the house. Although incandescent bulbs a la Edison, in lampshades, make the house look cosy and warm, some find the electricity bills a concern and prefer the former. These tubes , when switched on, often momentarily hesitate, the hesitation then becomes more pronounced with a noticeable flicker, and the tube finally "burns" or lights up. It is not unknown for folks to prod the tube along , by touching a long wooden stick to the tube holder, just to give it a final encouraging push.

Consequently, those of us , in our younger days, who took things very literally in language, and never understood implied meanings, would suddenly nod in understanding several minutes after everyone, and would be subject to someone , saying ,"So, has the tube lit up finally in your head ?" ("
काय , ट्यूब पेटली का डोक्यातली ?")....

Turns out, that lights and the insides of your head have a connection.

New Scientist reports on brain cells can be switched on and off like light bulbs. Except instead of hardware switches you end up using newly identified microbial proteins that are sensitive to the colour of laser light. Brain Cells or neurons get activated when ions move in and out across their membranes creating an electric potential. Turns out that some proteins, which are light-sensitive, can do the same thing when engineered into these neurons. Which means, certain brain circuits, some possibly even corrupted , can be simply shutdown and/or activated by shining specific color laser lights on them.

With our current knowledge of how memories are stored , neuroplasticity, and research being done into afflictions like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, there is a huge possibility that lights of different colors can be used to turn off faulty brain circuits, and more finely pinpoint things for treatment, which is not possible pharmacologically.

The mind boggles with the possible applications of this research.

Blindness could have a new treatment, along with Spinal cord injuries, because we would be able to pinpoint the exact group "managing" neurons , with possibility of shutting them off. Deep brain stimulation of Parkinson patients, may get more meaningful , since we now know the culprit set of neurons, as a result of seeing which light up in such patients.

Study of behaviour could be the next best thing to happen.


Terrorist guys who are brainwashed and arrive in other countries, could be neutralized simply by shining some light on them after a quick protein inserting operation. No need for hanging them upside down, standing on nails, sleeping on ice, and all such tortures. Along with possible punishments like hanging, electric chairs and life imprisonment, they will have an additional thing called "light" punishment, which will actually be a light treatment to straighten out neurons that make these guys obsessive about violence, religion and paradise.

Psychiatric illnesses, like certain obsessive compulsive disorders (OCD), depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, various manias, addictions etc, may be treatable, because we are now able to pinpoint exactly which are the culprit neurons, and direct our drug therapy more intelligently, keeping these drugs away from places that don't need them.

What would be nice though, is if someone could identify neurons that make a person prone to , say, lying. A five star treatment at a seven star neural hospital for ministers and government bigwigs should be then mandatory.

Shining lights into their brains.

There would be a flood of ministers owning up to cheating on taxes, accepting hush money, changing rules to suit some industrialist on payment of astronomical sums.

Presidents owning up to making a huge fortune out of some war, and others coming clean about ordering murders of people they didn't like

Governors confessing about their very ungovernor like activities in official residences, and civil servants pouring out the tricks they used to stay out of the clutches of the law, when arrest loomed imminent.

Chief Ministers finally confessing on how they engineered their wife's appointment to their own position, after the court indicted them, and how they fudged some accounts later at the centre to show more profits than losses.

All families, accused of killing their daughter-in-law for dowry, wife beaters, and wife cheaters, should be prime contenders for this light treatment. Identification of neurons that light up or shut down in their avaricious brains can be identified, and appropriately treated and shut down permanently.

Offenders who prey on young children and molest them , would be given extra strong light treatment.

But in India, the problem is never in the conceptualization, but in the implementation. There will be a committee appointed by education minister Kapil Sibal. The PM will announce funding from a special quota for acquiring the research hardware, software and human ware.

Microsoft, Intel, IBM, etc will start sending delegations to New Delhi. The Marxists in Parliament will shout themselves hoarse over the imperialistic hegemony. Hilary Clinton will visit India, with a business delegation, cover her head, and head over to our neighbors.

States will vie to have the research centre on their land. The Communists will fight this tooth and nail for some reason or the other. When the venue is finally decided and agreed upon, contractors will be rubbing their hands in glee over getting the various contracts. Some TV station folks will do a sting operation showing some hitherto considered "safe and innocent" type person accepting bags of stuff .

Parliament will be in an uproar. There will be walkouts.

The research centre's development will be halted. Hardware will sit around in boxes and become obsolete. In the meanwhile Microsoft and Linux will have undergone a huge update in their respective OS's . Things will be at a standstill.

And somewhere in Delhi, there will be someone, in crisp white and a shawl , of anatomically convex tendencies, who surrounded by various hangers-on, will smile and lean back in his rocking chair with a know-it-all look, clap and signal for a golden spittoon, then chew away, bending forward to spit the red into the gold.

"Hmm. You really thought this centre would happen ? Keep waiting . There is something you should know. About what we know and what we don't know. Long time ago, someone powerful in the US, who has a first name*** similar to Donald Duck, said something, which I have always liked. Like this :

As we know, There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know. There are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things We do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Please. I really don't want to know.

I hope someone can throw some light, laser or otherwise, on that.

*** Donald Rumsfeld, Defence secretary during President Bush's time.


  1. Amen!!! We surely could use some serious light these days!!

  2. I'm reading your serious, scientific post, and suddenly at the end you throw in something so funny...

    I loved it, and yes..can anyone shed any light on THAT!

  3. As I was reading your blog post, I thought of my cousin's husband. My cousin believes that her husband suffers from a deficiency of sunlight during the winter months. With less sun, he becomes moody and sullen.

    What a fascinating post, about the science and sad.. about the political truth.

  4. Yes, we all need a bit of light in our lives...Good post!

  5. Some light. Some colour...always brings about cheer !

    This post brings some cheer... a distant light at the end of a dark tunnel called Parkinson !

  6. Great post! And not a bad idea- to use light therapy to neutralize criminals.

    The problem will be partly- as you has said- in the implementation. But also partly because those who have the power will not want this therapy! Those politicians who are hand in glove with criminals and who are not so clean themselves will actively stall this.

    And who will pay the pharma companies to develop this idea knowing that they themselves may be caught in its net?

  7. It can also empower those it shouldn't.

  8. How insightful ! I like the idea of neutralising terrorists by shining an array of lights on them ! But its also scary to think how peoples moods could be influenced and exploited with this same application, by crimanal minds !

    I'm so glad i stumbled across your lovely blog !

  9. Absolutely fascinating possibilities with this!!

    And the poking of fluorescent lights to move them along more quickly? Perhaps this explains why I tap my forehead repeatedly when trying to think hard!


  10. Thank you everyone for the interesting comments. I dont know that such light treatments will ever be a reality, say, in my lifetime. If they do, I just hope that science and good sense prevails over avarice, trickery, and misuse of this treatment.....

    In the meanwhile the list of people who I think should get this treatment grows and grows....:-)