Researchers have developed a calcium sensor for use in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that they hope can one day track electrical activity in neurons deep in living brains. The tool potentially allows scientists an unprecedented view of brain activity in specific types of cells across the entire brain of a living organism (ACS Sensors 2021, DOI: 10.1021/acssensors.1c01085).
“Calcium is the ionic language in which electrical activity in neurons gets converted to biological function,” says Arnab Mukherjee, a chemical engineer at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the study’s principal investigator. Many groups have developed sensors that detect calcium ions, he says, but most rely on light. That limits their use to the very top few millimeters of the brain that visible or infrared light can penetrate into, and even then, only a small area of the brain can be viewed using a microscope.
“Answers to some of the most interesting questions—whether it’s cognition or emotion or addiction—are buried far deeper than what is accessible using light,” says Mukherjee. “And neuronal connections go several centimeters from one end to another, so you really need to look at the whole brain at once.”
The sensor’s main benefit, says Mukherjee, is that because it is a protein and not a small molecule, it can be genetically encoded into any cell type, making it noninvasive and allowing researchers to study brain processes over long periods of time. The new sensor reveals the...
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