When the lights are on, the brain is at work: U of A chemists build glowing red tool for brain mapping
Professor Robert Campbell and his PhD student Ahmed Abdelfattah have built a new fluorescent molecule that allows them to “see the messages” sent through the brain.
University of Alberta chemists have built a molecule that will shed new light on brain disease research — red, flashing light, specifically.
Combining proteins from red-glowing coral and the sac-like sea squirt, PhD student Ahmed Abdelfattah constructed a new tool called FlicR1 for scientists to see messages move through brain tissue.
"The brain is like a black box. There's lots of research into it, but not a lot of people know a lot about it," Abdelfattah said.
"It's 80 billion cells acting in a small volume that are doing amazing things, but we don't know what they're doing."
For years, researchers have been using electricity to study how messages move around our minds. The method has limitations — only so many electrodes fit to tap into dozens, or hundreds, of brain cells at a time, said Abdelfattah's supervisor and study co-author, Prof. Robert Campbell.
The ability to watch cells illuminate — even under a microscope for a couple of milliseconds — helps scientists identify thousands of brain cells working at once.
"This is really fundamental to neuroscience in this day and age. Many of the questions that are being asked in modern neuroscience require researchers to see the activity of many, many neurons over a large area of the brain, and that's just not possible with the traditional approach," Campbell said.
The technique could aid in research of neurological disorders like Alzheimer disease, epilepsy, migraines, and many more.
Their accomplishment, achieved with collaborators at Harvard and Yale universities, is published in the Journal of Neuroscience Wednesday.
Abdelfattah cobbled together "thousands" of trial molecules during the last four years before finding one sensitive enough to light up red when a signal pulsed down a neuron.
Using red light is important, because other colours in the visible spectrum don't travel as well through tissue, as you might notice when you hold your hand in front of a flashlight and see a red glow.
Although FlicR1 works successfully in brain cells in a dish, illuminating the brains of live creatures is another matter. The next step, Campbell said, is to get their creation into a relatively harmless virus, then expose lab mice to the virus.
Unlike electrical stimulation, fluorescent proteins won't allow scientists to see deep into brain tissue. Most useful visualizations will come from the surface of the brain, or from brain cells in a lab.
"To me, this is not the end, but it's an improvement to what technology has to offer," Abdelfattah said.