Ever imagined how scientists or brain doctors manage to peer into the deepest reaches of the brain? For years, scientific experts have been testing experimental approaches to improve brain imaging scans.
The brain, though, is a richly interconnected structure. Taking the system apart, like separating the threads of a tapestry, was deemed as not always the best way to understand and appreciate the big picture that allows deciphering brain activity or identifying diseased circuitry.
With a new technology developed by American bioengineer Karl Deisseroth, scientists can more readily visualize diverse fibers and molecules of interest at very high resolution throughout the intact brain. By removing lipids that are usually concentrated in cell membranes, light is able to seep into the inner structures of the brain and, voila, you have transparent brain cells.
Professor Deisseroth, a recipient of the 2015 Lurie Prize in Biomedical Sciences for the development of CLARITY and optogenetics, used a method built on the chemistry of hydrogels. He noted that the involvement of some talented people in the laboratory led to a workable strategy for building a transparent and accessible brain.
The Three-Step Process
The breakthrough findings were published in the October issue of Scientific American. Professor Diesseroth had planted the seed of the idea of making a “see-through” brain 15 years earlier.
First and foremost, a transparent gel is formed within the laboratory animal or postmortem human brain. The next step is the removal of the tissue components that are not of interest or that scatter light — lipids.
A multitude of fluorescent labels and other markers are then introduced. In addition to being transparent, the gel is designed to allow fast infusion of probes.
Peering Into the Deepest Reaches of the Brain
This newfound ability to see into the depths of the brain has opened exciting possibilities. Scientists can use the new approach to link physical form with the behavioral function of neural pathways involved in action and cognition, ranging from movement to memory.
The method has also helped shed light on processes that contribute to parkinsonism Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, autism, drug abuse, and anxiety disorders. As funding for such commendable scientific strategies and tools continues, to date, doctors may gain invaluable insights on the brain and its disorders, and hopefully, arrive at cures.