A pin-sized microscope will give us an up-close view of animals’ brain activity as they explore their environment, a new paper reports.
The new microscope detects fluorescent light, which scientists often use to mark active cells. But unlike other miniature microscopes, which cost thousands of dollars and monitor only a few cells at a time, this one can keep track of 200 neurons at once – for around $10.
And because the microscope is so tiny and lightweight, a mouse can wear it – in one neuroscientist’s actual words – “like a little hat,” which allows the animal to explore freely and naturally. This will give us a more accurate picture of how a mouse behaves when it doesn’t have a huge, ungainly piece of metal stuck to its head.
The new microscope has already yielded some impressive results: as the journal Nature Methods reports, a team led by Stanford University’s Mark Schnitzer and Abbas El Gamal, who developed the microscope, used it to detect a previously unknown neural firing pattern in the brains of active mice:
During mouse locomotion, individual microzones exhibited large-scale, synchronized Ca2+ spiking. This is a mesoscopic neural dynamic missed by prior techniques for studying the brain at other length scales.
In other words, the microscope’s combination of small size and wider-range scanning made it possible to detect a synchronized pattern of neuron firing on a scale no one had ever noticed before.
The developers say this new technology was made possible by – of all things – cell phones and other consumer electronics. As phone manufacturers feel pressure to keep their devices compact and their costs low, they’re filling the market with ever-cheaper and tinier components, which scientists are only too happy to snap up.
Understandably, mice and neuroscientists alike are pretty thrilled by these development:
“The system as a whole represents an order of magnitude improvement in size and price point over past designs,” said David Kleinfeld, a physics professor at UCSD. “[It] may lead to a quantum jump in the ubiquity of imaging in biomedical research.”
(The mice declined to comment for this story, but I’m going to assume that their feisty scrambling constitutes an off-the-record endorsement of the microscope hat.)
Anyway, what Kleinfield is getting at here is that this technology could have wider implications for medical studies. Its portability would make it ideal for use in studies where conventional microscopes are too big to fit – not only for mapping the activity of mouse neurons, but also for studying cells in the brains and bodies of other pint-sized animals.
But until then, we can rest easy, knowing that cyborg mice everywhere can now wear more comfortable hats. (I loved typing that sentence.)