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Lasers may not be habit-forming

The Wall Street Journal reported recently on research at MIT aimed at curing people’s bad habits. But this involved sessions with a physicist rather than a psychologist.

After identifying cells important to habit formation, scientists were able to make them light-sensitive, and then “turn off compulsive behaviors, break habits they had previously inculcated and prevent habits from forming in the first place,” according to a report published in the Wall Street Journal, “Bad Habits Bent With Light” (subscription required).

We’ve reported on it before, particularly in the fascinating work of Ed Boyden at MIT (see SPIE Newsroom video interview with Boyden). In addition, Fraunhofer’s Ernst Bamberg gave a Hot Topics presentation on the topic at SPIE Photonics West 2013. But nothing makes technology like this accessible to the general public as well as relating it to something personal. Want to quit smoking? There’s a laser app for that! (Or there may be soon.)

As authors Kyle Smith and Ann Graybiel state in their paper (Neuron, 27 June 2013), “Habits are notoriously difficult to break and, if broken, are usually replaced by new routines.” But the introduction of “selective optogenetic disruption of infralimbic activity” as habits are developing (which in lab rats is known as “overtraining”) resulted in prevention of those habitual behaviors.

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