Researchers combine expertise in physics, engineering, and biology to develop a new tool to study brain synapses
(Boston, Mass.) - Thanks to a recent grant of nearly $1 million from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, three Boston University scientists will apply advanced theories in quantum physics to observe what occurs at brain synapses - the sites of communication between neurons. The ability to make these observations could ultimately lead to a better understanding of how the brain functions.
Kristen Harris, professor of biology, working with Bahaa Saleh, professor and chair of electrical and computer engineering, and Malvin Teich, professor of engineering and physics, will use the grant over the next five years to develop a potentially revolutionary new form of microscopy, called entangled-photon fluorescence microscopy, and apply it to unraveling crucial issues in neuroscience.
Harris has devoted her career to the study of dendritic spines, the tiny protrusions that stud the surface of neurons and that have excitatory synapses on them.
"The new imaging technology that we are developing holds the promise of unraveling the century-old question of how these spines function," she states. "We know that they are crucial to cognitive processes such as learning and memory, but we know little about how they work, primarily because they are so small that they challenge existing optical imaging techniques needed to visualize living spines."
The new imaging technique being developed utilizes a non-classical light source - a weak beam of photon pairs generated by passing laser light through a nonlinear optical crystal. The entangled-photon pairs are expected to provide better resolution and a significant reduction in light-induced tissue damage - allowing scientists to examine functioning living tissue over time without destroying it.