Tiny microscope and fluorescent dye allow a fascinating glimpse inside rodent memory

Mouse models are often used to evaluate pre-clinical human medical techniques.  In a recent study, Stanford University Biology and Applied Physics Professor Mark Schnitzer used a neuro implant -- a tiny microscope -- and fluorescent dye to literally "read" a mouse's thoughts by visualizing firing neurons.

Neurons flood with calcium ions when they fire.  Via some clever genetic engineering, Professor Schnitzer spliced in gene systems to express green fluorescent proteins when calcium was present.  As a result the cells light up when they're firing.

The microscope was implanted into the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for spatial reasoning and episodic memory in mice and men.  The microscope's digital imaging chip captured images of over 700 neurons.

The seemingly chaotic resulting patterns of "green fireworks" -- neuron firings -- actually were discovered to have regular patterns.  Even after months of not seeing it, a mouse would recognize a certain spot or familiar stimulus, and the neurons would fire off in a predictable pattern.

Green neural patterns
The firing neurons create distinctive patterns. [Image Source: Stanford University]

In that regard, the experiment functioned as rodent "mind reading" of a sort -- although the limitation is that the researchers had to first record which neurons fired upon certain stimuli, in order to develop a langauge set.

Professor Schnitzer explains, "We can literally figure out where the mouse is in the arena by looking at these lights.  The hippocampus is very sensitive to where the animal is in its environment, and different cells respond to different parts of the arena.  Imagine walking around your office. Some of the neurons in your hippocampus light up when you're near your desk, and others fire when you're near your chair. This is how your brain makes a representative map of a space."

The rodent mind-reading technique could be used to study brain disease.
[Image Source: Gawker]

The technique could be applied to studying degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer's Disease in mouse models.  Such diseases are still poorly understood on a cellular level.  The procedure could also lead to experimental techniques in humans, though clearly the requirements of gene splicing and brain implants would make such an application unlikely in the near term.

The work was published in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Nature Neuroscience.

The results are promising enough that Professor Schnitzer is spinning off a startup to manufacture and sell the device to pharmaceutical and biomedical research firms.

Sources: Nature [abstract], Stanford University

"And boy have we patented it!" -- Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007

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