Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Viewing Living Neurons in 3-D

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Viewing Living Neurons in 3-D

Article excerpt

Researchers have created a 3-D imaging system that reveals neural activity throughout the brains of living animals. This technique could help scientists discover how neuronal networks process sensory information and generate behavior.

The team, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Vienna, used the new system to simultaneously image the activity of every neuron in the worm Caenorhabditis elegans and in the brain of a zebrafish larva, offering a more complete picture of nervous system activity than has been previously possible.

"Looking at the activity of just one neuron doesn't tell you how that information is being computed," says Ed Boyden, a science professor at MIT and a leader of the research team. "For that, you need to know what upstream neurons are doing. And to understand what the activity of a given neuron means, you have to be able to see what downstream neurons are doing. In short, if you want to understand how information is being integrated from sensation all the way to action, you have to see the entire brain."

The new approach, described in Nature Methods, could also help neuroscientists learn more about the biological basis of brain disorders. "We don't really know, for any brain disorder, the exact set of cells involved," Boyden says. "The ability to survey activity throughout a nervous system may help pinpoint the cells or networks that are involved with a brain disorder, leading to new ideas for therapies."

Boyden's team developed the brain-mapping method with researchers in the lab of Alipasha Vaziri of the University of Vienna and the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna. The paper's lead authors are Young-Gyu Yoon, a graduate student at MIT, and Robert Prevedel, a postdoc at the University of Vienna.

Neurons encode information-sensory data, motor plans, emotional states, and thoughts--using electrical impulses called action potentials, which provoke calcium ions to stream into each cell as it fires. By engineering fluorescent proteins to glow when they bind calcium, scientists can visualize this electrical firing of neurons.

However, until now there has been no way to image this neural activity over a large volume, in three dimensions, and at high speed. …

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