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Understanding neural pathways using LED probes

16 Dec 2015

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Researchers from the University of Michigan have made significant headway in unravelling the mysteries of neural pathways in the brain through the use of LEDs. The team has built and tested in mice neural probes that hold what are believed to be the smallest implantable LEDs ever made. The novel devices can control and record the activity of many individual neurons, measuring how changes in the activity of a single neuron can affect its neighbours.

The team anticipates that experiments using probes based on their design could lead to breakthroughs in understanding and treating neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's.

"This is a very big step forward," said Kensall Wise, the William Gould Dow Distinguished University Professor Emeritus, who was involved with the research. "The fact that you can generate these optical signals on the probe, in a living brain, opens up new doors."

A network of around 100 billion neurons power the human brain, and figuring out how they work together is a monumental and important task, the researchers said.

"Hundreds of millions of people suffer from neurological diseases, but treatment methods and drugs are currently very limited because scientific understanding of the brain is lacking," said Fan Wu, a postdoctoral researcher in electrical engineering and computer sciences and co-first author on a new paper on the findings published in Neuron. "We have developed a tool that is needed to better understand how the brain works, and why it doesn't work, to try to solve to these problems."

In genetically modified rodents, neurons can be turned on and off with light. Typically, neuroscientists using this "optogenetics" technique shine light on a region of the brain through implanted optical fibres and record the response with a second device. This helps to reveal which regions of the brain are responsible for which behaviours. But it can't reveal how the neurons communicate with one another.

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