Renowned physicist invents microscope that can peer at living brain cells

Feb 03, 2012 by Bob Yirka report
Schematic drawing of the upright STED microscope used for the experiments. Image: Science, DOI:10.1126/science.1215369

( -- Ever since scientists began studying the brain, they’ve wanted to get a better look at what was going on. Researchers have poked and prodded and looked at dead cells under electron microscopes, but never before have they been able to get high resolution microscopic views of actual living brain cells as they function inside of a living animal. Now, thanks to work by physicist Stefan Hell and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, that dream is realized. In a paper published in Science, Hell and his team describe the workings of their marvelous discovery.

Hell (which in German means “bright”) and others at the Institute have been working for years on ultra high resolution microscopes that go by the name "stimulated emission depletion" or STED microscopes. Now, they’ve taken their work to a whole new level by cutting away a small portion of a mouse’s skull and replacing it with a glass window and then placing their latest STED microscope against the glass to peer inside. To make it easier to see what is what, the team first genetically altered the mouse to make certain cells fluorescent. Then, to allow for focusing exclusively on just those cells that are lit up, they added software to the microscope to blot out anything that was not lit up. The result is super high resolution real time imagery of the neurons that exist on the exterior part of a living mouse brain.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
STED time-lapse recording of a single spine at an interval of 10 seconds. The measurement includes 128 z-stacks consisting of 5 slices each. Most of the rapid remodeling of the spine head appears continuous and smooth at this frame rate. No damage is observed at the dendrite or the spine after recording a total of 640 slices. The movie was acquired in a different experiment than the spines in Fig.1. Scale bar = 1µm. Video: DOI:10.1126/science.1215369

The new microscope provides clear resolution down to 70 nanometers, which is four times that ever achieved before and is enough to allow scientists to see the actual movement of dendritic spines, which may help researches understand why they do so.

It is likely that researchers will find many varied uses for the new . One prominent area will almost certainly involve looking into what psychiatric drugs are really doing within synapses, perhaps leading to breakthroughs in pharmaceutical drugs that are better able to target specific illnesses.

One downside to any new scientific breakthrough however, is the natural tendency of many to move from excitation, to wondering about what will come next. In this case, Hell and his team have already started contemplating ideas on ways to allow researchers to study any cell in the living brain at such , not just those that lie on the surface.

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More information: Nanoscopy in a Living Mouse Brain, Science 3 February 2012: Vol. 335 no. 6068 p. 551. DOI: 10.1126/science.1215369

We demonstrated superresolution optical microscopy in a living higher animal. Stimulated emission depletion (STED) fluorescence nanoscopy reveals neurons in the cerebral cortex of a mouse with <70-nanometer resolution. Dendritic spines and their subtle changes can be observed at their relevant scales over extended periods of time.

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User comments : 7

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3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 03, 2012
Hel (which in German means bright)

"Hell" means bright in german (in a visual and also in a 'brainy' sense). The guy's name is Stefan Hell.

(Hel is the norse goddess of the underworld)
1 / 5 (4) Feb 03, 2012
I cant believe they got a science paper for using already existing technology on the surface of a mouse brain. Yawn. What is the relevance? This teaches us nothing. Hell needs to get backin to asking basic scientific questions.
not rated yet Feb 03, 2012
This is exactly the kind of thing that might finally motivate me to change careers and go into neuroimaging/neuroscience.

So how bout it Physorg buddies? Should I take advantage of my full scholarship to graduate school and do some good or continue to be a snowboard-bum with a well-paid but unrewarding job? As great as living near 7 ski resorts is, I'm just not sure if I can enjoy a life designing and building TV/wifi networks for rich second-home owners.
not rated yet Feb 03, 2012
I cant believe they got a science paper for using already existing technology on the surface of a mouse brain. Yawn. What is the relevance? This teaches us nothing. Hell needs to get backin to asking basic scientific questions.

What exactly is your contribution to science?
5 / 5 (1) Feb 03, 2012
C_elegans, Galileo used already existing technology (the telescope) to discover Jupiter's moons and solidify Copernicus' heliocentric model of the solar system. You're an idiot.
not rated yet Feb 04, 2012
I'd like to see this scan done on my damaged spine. See what happens. They say your motor neurons in your brain atrophy when you get a spinal cord injury. Curious to see what it looks like compared to a normal person
1 / 5 (1) Feb 04, 2012

"Everyone was against me, but I knew I was right." - Barry Marshall

(German researchers had published several studies during the early 20th century, positing that bacterial infection was the principal cause of stomach ulcers, but they failed to attract wider interest or demonstrate an acceptable proof)

So even with German support - your neuroscience destiny will be a lonely journey - drinking out of desperation from Petri dishes.

The story has a happy ending. Your story will have a happy ending too. I suggest you decipher the meaning of the following:

Record such neuroimaging for all embryonic life.
Of course, I never wrote this - and there was a time where your life had a private sphere.

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