That loss of discrimination is caused by neurons killed by malfunctions in mitochondria - the submicron-sized power packs found in every animal cell.
These malfunctions are the most immediate cause of afflictions like Parkinson's, Huntington's, and Alzheimer's diseases.
Malfunctioning mitochondria have also been linked to battlefield aftereffects caused by radiation or by nerve agents like sarin.
But because mitochondria are so small, averaging a few hundred nanometers, scientists have been unable to study them in vitro with the necessary precision to determine the best possible neuroprotectants.
Now a unique laser operating in the nanometer range at the Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories has demonstrated the first-ever technique for studying the reactions of such ultrasmall biological organelles in their functioning state. The laser, using samples obtained from the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, has shown it can obtain clear signals from individual mitochondria in vitro.
"'Waterproofing' the mitochondria with specific protectant drugs would increase the survival chances of the brain," says Marcus Keep, a neurosurgeon professor at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.
"Our goal is make the brain less susceptible to diseases like Lou Gehrig's," says Sandia researcher Paul Gourley, a physicist who grew up in a family of doctors.
Work to date has shown the biolaser (which recently won first place in the DOE's annual Basic Energy Sciences' competition for using light to quantify characteristics of anthrax spores) is able to measure mitochondrial size through unexpected bursts of light given up by each mitochondrion. The laser, using the same means, can also measure the s
Contact: Neal Singer
DOE/Sandia National Laboratories