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Some of the mice squeaked in agony when researchers aimed a blue light at their paws. Other mice felt nothing at all when zapped with a laser.

In the latest demonstration of optogenetics, a versatile but complex technology for controlling nerve cells, a research team at Stanford University has sketched out how patients afflicted by chronic pain might one day find relief: simply by pressing a bright flashlight to their skin.

“Patients could be given their own ability to create a pain block on demand,” says Michael Kaplitt, a neurosurgeon and chief scientific officer of Circuit Therapeutics, a three-year-old Palo Alto, California, biotechnology startup now working on a pain treatment along with the Stanford scientists.

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