Researchers use diamonds to watch the brain at work

February 13th, 2012
A team of three interdisciplinary researchers from Columbia University—Dirk Englund, assistant professor of electrical engineering and of applied physics at The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, Jonathan S. Owen, assistant professor of chemistry, and Rafael Yuste, professor of biological sciences and neuroscience—were recently awarded $1 million from the W. M. Keck Foundation to seed their groundbreaking research on direct, real-time imaging of neuronal signals.

“The Keck funding will dramatically advance our understanding of how the brain works,” says Professor Englund. “We are using diamond nanoprobes to measure electrical signals in the brain in real-time to monitor the activity of entire neuronal ensembles. Just imagine that you could record a movie of a network of neurons – processing information! This kind of tool could revolutionize neuroscience and help us unlock some of the big mysteries about the brain.”

Englund notes that, despite a century of research, scientists still don’t know a lot about the complex interactions within groups of neurons, which communicate viaelectrical impulses. While neuroscience has traditionally relied on electrodes to measure the activity of individual neurons— one at a time— it is the interaction of many cells in neuronal circuits that generates behavior, and there are currently very few tools to accurately monitor such population activity.

Monitoring the function of entire neuronal groups, while still preserving single-cell resolution, could dramatically advance our understanding of how the brain works. Englund says that current methods for measuring voltages in large populations of neurons do not yet have adequate resolution. But recent work using highly sensitive tools and measuring techniques from atomic physics has shown that optically manipulated color centers in diamond may be the solution—they are the world’s most sensitive magnetic and electric field probes, at sub-100 nanometer distances and under room temperature conditions. Nanometer-scale diamonds could make excellent field sensors as they can be functionalized for targeted delivery into brain tissue for real-time imaging of electrical activity.

“Diamond is uniquely suited for studies of biological systems because it is chemically inert, and appears compatible with living cells,” says Englund. “We are hoping to harness these properties in diamond nanoprobes with sufficient sensitivity to simultaneously measure many individual neurons within neuronal circuits and capture, in real time, the activity of the brain. This has never been done before and we’re very excited to get going.”

“This collaboration came out of conversations that started after an initial chance encounter, like it often happens in science,” adds Yuste. “And it demonstrates the increasingly supportive atmosphere for interdisciplinary interactions between different types of scientists on Columbia’s Morningside campus.”

Owen notes, “Working with outstanding collaborators on this important problem is thrilling for me and my group. We are grateful for the support from W. M. Keck Foundation. Without their foresight it would be difficult to fund a collaboration like ours.”

Provided by Columbia University

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