Scientists at UCLA have collaborated to create a microscope that displays images of neurons in 3D. The microscope is called the spatio-temporal excitation-emission multiplexing (STEM). The hope is that STEM will allow for better understanding of neurons by being able to analyze them in 3D, while at the same time understanding the circuitry at work in the brain.
In the past, much of the research and studies that have been done on the brain have been focused on individual neurons firing, rather than on the brain’s circuitry. Thus, scientists now hope to be able to detect neurological diseases earlier as a result of having the capacity to study the brain’s circuitry with added depth.
Adrian Cheng, post-doctoral physics fellow at UCLA, believes that the microscope will see its greatest benefit with the detection of diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and autism.
According to Cheng, the microscope focuses on multiple spots during the firing of laser impulses – which happens every few milliseconds – to create a third axis, the z-axis, which creates a 3D image of the neuron.
“The microscope is very important for detecting and understanding these diseases. I feel that autism is the main benefactor, as the disease has very subtle effects in the brain,” Cheng said.
Cheng said that the brain often looks normal, causing diagnoses to sometimes take longer – something the microscope will help with.
“Types of autism can only be seen by looking at the circuitry of the neurons; subtle unseen changes might lead to larger behaviors,” Cheng said.
According to autismspeaks.org, “One in 110 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and one in 70 boys, a 600 percent increase in the last two decades,” showing that it continues to be a significant problem in the U.S.
Cheng said that the microscope has led to much success because it is a working, user-friendly prototype – one which they hope will be made available to even more scientists in the coming years.
“It’s really exciting because we are really just beginning to understand how the brain works; neuroscience is certainly more exciting now,” Cheng said.
He said that they are hoping to make the microscope cost effective. According to Cheng, it is common for advanced microscopes to cost anywhere from $100,000 up to several million dollars, but they are aiming for something on the low-end of that scale.
Cheng said that much like how the Human Genome Project revolutionized molecular biology in the 1990s, neurology will have a revolution of its own this next decade.
“In the past you would just see neurons flashing via computer-generated graphics on shows like CSI – now it’s reality. It’s a growing field, and we have built a technique capable of developing it in 3D,” Cheng said.
Carlos Portera-Cailliau – a neurologist who has been working with Cheng on this microscope – reports on his lab’s website that microscopes like the STEM microscope “can investigate the mechanisms of synapse formation and axon pruning to identify novel molecular targets that can be exploited for therapeutic purposes in these devastating disorders.”
In other words, the microscope allows for precise analysis of neurons and how best to treat neurological problems.
ERIC C. LIPSKY can be reached at email@example.com.