DEEP THINKING: CU Anschutz researchers peer into the working brain, literally

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AURORA | A new microscope developed in Aurora will give researchers a novel window into the brain, the body’s most complex organ.

It really is a window.

The hope is that neuroscientists studying depression and mental illness will be able to observe neurons in real time. It’s still research now. The human applications will come when the microscope is commercialized with the help of a six-figure business grant and $2 million in federal funding.

The researchers — Emily Gibson, a biomedical engineer, and neuroscientist Diego Restrepo, both at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus  — are working strictly with mice at the moment before the microscope is used widely by researchers, they say.

“It’s as if you are blind when you are looking at the brain,” Restrepo said. “With this, you can see.”

To use the microscope and see the neurons that transmit information around the human body, Gibson said, a tiny glass window is surgically installed on a mouse’s head. Then, researchers snap the microscope into a little port in their head.

Gibson compares it to the brain ports used by Neo and Morpheus in “The Matrix.”

Researchers then point the microscope through the little window into the mushy matter of the brain. Without the microscope, that’s as far as you’ll see, Restrepo said: just gray matter.

But the duo developed a way to penetrate the stuff and look deep into the brain’s machinations.

The microscope has a liquid lens created with a droplet of oil and water. When electricity is applied to the lens, it can contract and expand, essentially zooming the lens in and out.

Gibson said the microscope collects infrared light and focuses the lens tightly on a very, very small area for a very, very short amount of time  — far less than a second. Gibson also collected molecules from “glow fish”, sold at pet stores everywhere, to use in the process.

In this way, the microscope can zoom in and observe neurons firing.

But the most innovative aspect of the microscope, the researchers said, is that the device itself can stimulate neural networks in the brain to change the behaviors of a mouse — and then observe the neurons and the biological reaction.

Meanwhile, the mouse can wander freely with the microscope mounted on its head.

This is crucial, Gibson and Restrepo said. With the microscope, researchers have the benefit of observing their brains while they live and interact freely with other mice. That could bring breakthroughs in research on brain chemistry and social interactions, Restrepo said.

If the brain port and neural stimulations make you squeamish, breathe easy. The research technique isn’t being used on humans — yet.

But the duo said the high-tech microscope could illuminate the way that non-human and human brains alike work, giving insight into Alzheimer’s and other mental illnesses that debilitate humans.

Funders agree. The project won an almost $400,000 small business grant this summer to commercialize the project and distribute it widely with the help of a Denver-based tech firm.

Gibson said the usefulness of the project has made the work so rewarding. It’s unlikely for the microscope to sit on a shelf, collecting dust, she said.

“We really want to develop it, get it out there and get it widely used and available,” Gibson said.

In fact, the microscope has already been deployed to multiple research labs, and other scientists have started taking an interest, including some at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The two-person team at CU Anschutz previously received a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Health as part of the Obama administration’s BRAIN Initiative. That money was partially used to develop the microscope.

Gibson described the Obama administration initiative as similar to the human genome project, which coordinated funds to understand and map DNA, but for research on the brain. The initiative has seen a quick return on investment in Restrepo and Gibson.

But the pair doesn’t expect to get much money from the commercialization of their technology, they said.

They’re just driven by the simplest of scientific motivations: curiosity.