Recognizing current limitations, scientists begin quest for a new approach to imaging brain cells activity

PHILADELPHIA Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are aiming to develop a novel imaging system that can capture snapshots of activity across large swaths of individual brain cells. Their interdisciplinary approach, supported by a new five-year, $1 million grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, could be a boon for neuroscientists hampered by the imperfect techniques now available for viewing the microscopic changes wrought neuron by neuron as the brain works.

The effort to invent this new brain imaging technique, led by Leif H. Finkel, professor of bioengineering, brings together two bioengineers, four neuroscientists and a physicist, members of Penns Institute for Medicine and Engineering and its Institute of Neurological Science. Their work comes as neuroscientists recognize the limitations of even the best windows into the brains inner workings, currently microelectrode recordings of individual neurons and medical imaging techniques such as EEG and MRI scans.

When trying to capture the activity of nerve cells in the brain, scientists face a daunting task somewhat akin to using flawed photographic equipment to shoot a swarming mob of people. The goal is a view so crisp that you can easily recognize each one, but the only cameras available either leave the individuals blurry beyond recognition or give a clear picture of only a small number of those scattered throughout the crowd.

To remedy this marked imprecision in imaging the brains active cells, Finkel and his colleagues envision an entirely new kind of optical "camera" that would effectively permit clear millisecond-by-millisecond pictures of each of the thousands of neurons within a brain region.

"Our understanding of how the nervous system carries out its functions learning, perception, memory, and cognition is severely limited by current technology," Finkel says. "We are able, via microelectrode recordings, to monitor the activity of individual cells, and som

Contact: Steve Bradt
University of Pennsylvania

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