When I talk to neuroscientists about how they study the brain I get a lesson (usually filled with acronyms) in the various ways scientists go about trying to read minds. Some of the tools they use can detect when general regions of the brain are active, but can’t detect individual nerves. Others record the activity of individual nerves, one nerve at a time, but can’t detect networks of nerves firing together. Still another tool can report the afterglow of a signal that has been sent across networks of neurons.
There hasn't been any one way of seeing when a nerve fires and which neighbors in connects to.
I wrote recently about a new tool to do just that, developed by bioengineer Michael Lin, MD, PhD, and biologist and applied physicist Mark Schnitzer, PhD. They’ve both come up with proteins that light up when a nerve sends a signal. They can put their proteins in a group of nerves in one part of the brain then watch those signals spread across the network of neurons as they interact.
In my story I quote Lin: "You want to know which neurons are firing, how they link together and how they represent information. A good probe to do that has been on the wish list for decades."
The proteins could be widely used to better understand the brain or develop drugs:
With these tools scientists can study how we learn, remember, navigate or any other activity that requires networks of nerves working together. The tools can also help scientists understand what happens when those processes don't work properly, as in Alzheimer's or Parkinson's diseases, or other disorders of the brain.
The proteins could also be inserted in neurons in a lab dish. Scientists developing drugs, for example, could expose human nerves in a dish to a drug and watch in real time to see if the drug changes the way the nerve fires. If those neurons in the dish represent a disease, like Parkinson's disease, a scientist could look for drugs that cause those cells to fire more normally.
Now that I've written about the invention of this new tool I'm looking forward to hearing more about how scientists start using it to understand our brain or develop drugs.
3D rendered illustration of a nerve cell by Sebastian Kaulitzki/Shutterstock