Using a tiny microscope outfitted with some special gear, scientists have built a tool that can track the millions of interactions among brain cells in a mouse’s head. Hopefully one day, this technology could be applied to the human mind to help better understand conditions like autism and schizophrenia.
The invention, developed at Rockefeller University in New York, is equipped with specialized group of lenses called a microlens array. The array helps the microscope capture images from multiple angles and depths on a sensor chip, which then produces a 3D record of neurons turning on and off as they communicate through electrical impulses inside the brain. A coaxial cable then transmits the data for recording.
“Until now, no one has been able to detect how these different neurons, which can be located at different depths within a volume of brain tissue, dynamically interact with each other in a freely moving rodent,” says Alipasha Vaziri, of the school’s Laboratory of Neurotechnology and Biophysics, who led the study, in a press release. The study was published in Nature Methods.
The challenges didn’t end with simply developing the device. Brains are notoriously difficult to read, and it’s hard to find the precise source of every neuronal light flash. This problem is known as “scattering,” and Vaziri’s team had to develop a whole new algorithm to solve it.
“The algorithm utilizes the statistical properties of neurons’ distribution in space and in activity while extracting additional information from the scattered emission light. This enables their activity to be simultaneously and faithfully recorded within a volume despite of the highly scattering tissue properties,” he says.
It’s a complex process, but it delivers results: individual neurons can be seen clearly and brightly as they flash on and off. Knowing how neurons interact in brains suffering from schizophrenia could help scientists understand what’s exactly happening inside the patient’s mind.
Right now, the head gear itself weighs four grams, about as much as a mouse’s head can handle. Vaziri’s next steps will be to develop a lighter version allowing for increased mobility. After that, it’s expansion on all fronts—recording neural activity on larger sections of the brain, higher speeds, higher resolution.
Scientists have been looking to mice to help understand the human brain for years. Recently, the Salk Institute implanted lentil-sized human brain organoids into mice.
But for now, the quest to decode the human brain continues.
Source: Rockefeller University
Previously published by:Popular Mechanics USA