Light-Up Neurons Are Fireworks in Your Brain

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File this under “science we’d love to see onscreen.” Researchers at Harvard University genetically altered neurons to light up as they fire. Imagine, for a minute, your brain covered in bursts of light, like a fireworks show under your skull. 

The researchers altered brain cells with a virus containing a gene from a Dead Sea organism. The gene produces a protein that, when exposed to an electrical signal, fluoresces. The virus introduces the gene to the brain cells, which are cultured in a lab, causing the cells to produce the protein, which lights up as the neurons fire.

“The way a neuron works is it has a membrane around the whole cell, sort of like a wire and insulation, except in a neuron the membrane is an active substance. Normally, the inside of the cell is negatively charged relative to the outside,” explained Adam Cohen, the study’s lead researcher. “When a neuron fires, the voltage reverses for a very short time, about one-one-thousandth of a second. This brief spike in voltage travels down the neuron and then activates other neurons downstream. Our protein is sitting in the membrane of the neurons, so as that pulse washes over the proteins, they light up, giving us an image of the neurons as they fire.”

The research has implications for observing how signals spread through the brain, how drugs affect neuron pathways, and the study of genetic conditions such as heart disease or depression. Researchers also hope to be able to trace these signals in living animals.

But all we can imagine is a futuristic lab where doctors diagnose disease by measuring bursts of light in a brain. You have to admit, it is much more visually arresting than x-rays or CT scans.


Image credit: Adam Cohen

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.