New Microscope Helps Neuroscientists Ask New Questions

Last week, President Obama announced the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a 10-year project to map the human brain.  President Obama introduced BRAIN as a way of encouraging neuroscientists to develop new technologies to study how neurons within the brain communicate with each other. New technologies are essential to helping neuroscientists ask new questions about how the brain works.  This project is similar to two other major projects: The Human Brain Project (European Union), which is working on a computer simulation of the entire brain, and The Human Connectome Project (National Institutes of Health) which is using state of the art magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to track projections all over the brain.

The BRAIN project will hopefully complement these other research initiatives by helping neuroscientists build new tools for studying the brain.  On Monday, we featured a research article published by neuroscientists and engineers at Stanford who did exactly what the BRAIN Initiative hopes to encourage!

The researchers at Stanford had a deceptively simple question: can neuronal activity be imaged while a mouse is freely behaving in a maze?  In the past, other scientists had to anesthetize a mouse and place it under a huge microscope to be able to image the activity of neurons in the intact brain.  However, using state-of-the-art optical technologies, the Stanford group was able to engineer a much smaller microscope!  Instead of microscopes the size of a table, they were able to make a microscope that can sit on the tip of your finger (top image)!  The researchers then made a small window into the brain of a mouse and secured the 2 gram microscope to its head.


Finally, the researchers used a genetically engineered mouse that expresses proteins that fluoresce whenever the neurons are activated.  This microscope can actually detect neuronal activity as cells firing action potentials emit flashes of light!

Despite its small size, this tiny microscope is powerful enough to take beautifully detailed pictures of brain activity!
Despite its small size, this tiny microscope is powerful enough to take beautifully detailed pictures of brain activity!  These neurons are found in the hippocampus, the brain region important for spatial learning and memory.

Since building these microscopes is very technically challenging, the Stanford group decided to form a new company devoted to the development of new “micro-microscopes” so that neuroscientists around the world have access to these burgeoning technologies.  We, at Knowing Neurons, hope that President Obama’s BRAIN initiative will be successful and that it will help neuroscientists develop technologies and tools that allow us to study the brain in both health and disease!



Written by Kate and Ryan Jones


Images from Inscopix.

Kate Fehlhaber

Kate graduated from Scripps College in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Neuroscience, completing the cellular and molecular track with honors. As an undergraduate, she studied long-term plasticity in models of Parkinson’s disease in a neurobiology lab at University of California, Los Angeles. She continued this research as lab manager before entering the University of Southern California Neuroscience graduate program in 2011 and then transferring to UCLA in 2013. She completed her PhD in 2017, where her research focused on understanding the communication between neurons in the eye. Kate founded Knowing Neurons in 2011, and her passion for creative science communication has continued to grow.