Optogenetics: Discerning Brain Function with Light
A Unit for High School Fundamentals of Biomedical Engineering Courses

Grade Levels: 9-12
Subject(s): Biomedical Engineering
Keywords: Biomedical engineering, neuroscience, optogenetics, brain activity
Activity Time: Five 50 minute class periods


Solving a real world problem such as how to study the functional brain involves many different disciplines of science. The field of optogenetics is labeled as one of the biggest breakthroughs in neuroscience for decades. This unique way of studying brain function in real-time starts from combining basic practices of genetic engineering and gene therapy with research done in unexpected organisms such as bacterial and blue green algal proteins known as opsins. Opsins are light activated ion channels or pumps. Different opsins conduct ions allowing their host prokaryotic cells to perform phototaxis, help maintain osmotic balance or create a larger electrochemical proton gradient. We can genetically engineer neurons by introducing different opsins and selectively excite or inhibit them using light to study downstream brain networks in real time. Optogenetics has since then evolved with many different applications, which students can explore as a culminating activity of this unit.

Overview (Start here)

  • Overview: Unit Planning Matrix, Learning Standards, and Important Information

Lesson 1: Introduction to Neurons and Action Potentials

Lesson 2: Technologies to Study Brain Function

Lesson 3: Genetic Engineering and Optogenetics

Lesson 4: Applications and Ethical Considerations for Optogenetics Technology

Equipment: No special equipment is required for the activities in these lessons.

Classroom Testing: These materials were designed during the summer session of the 2021 Research Experience for Teachers program and have not yet been tested in a classroom setting with students.

Credit: This lesson was developed by Dr. Janhavi Gupta, a science teacher at Union County Vocational Technical Schools - Magnet High School (Scotch Plains, NJ) as part of the 2021 Research Experience for Teachers program at the Center for Neurotechnology.