This Innovative Microscope is Changing the Way We Study Optogenetics

For many modern scientists, the study of the brain is one of the greatest challenges left to medicine in the 21st Century. The amount we don’t know is simply stunning, and the pathways to gaining that knowledge aren’t clear. To be fair, there are optimists and pessimists in the world of optogenetics, and some feel that advances in light technology can truly open the secrets of the brain.

Dubbed Firefly, a new microscope with a 6-millimeter-diameter lens area is being hailed as an innovative groundbreaker in the world of imaging. This device is so powerful that it can watch individual neurons fire, a technique not available in commercial microscopes of the past. The team at Harvard accomplished this by using patterns of light to stimulate cells and then capture that reaction using the Firefly lens.

Over time, and in the hands of a capable laboratory, the brain patterns that Firefly can view could lead us to a better understanding of how diseases like Alzheimer’s or epilepsy progress and act.

To focus light so exactly on neural systems, the researchers had to overcome several obstacles that have proved overly burdensome in the past. One was simply light energy: to create a large useful image of a neural system required a high-powered pulse of light difficult to replicate, and fraught with technical issues.

As Adam Cohen, a lead researcher on the project at Harvard, described the solution to this energy problem: “A great deal of engineering went into developing optics that cannot only image a large area but do so with very high light collection efficiency.”

Another issue was the optical capabilities necessary to actually capture the image. It goes somewhat without saying, but if we could have created light-imaging microscopes of immense ability years ago, we would have done so. The accomplishment of Cohen and his team at Harvard were on full display as they visually measured 85 neurons in 30 seconds during a recent demonstration.

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