Leaving the Lights On in Your Brain
Tracking brain activity is still a difficult task. There are a number of methods for observing neurons’ activity, but there are usually trade-offs depending on which road you take.
One option is the use of flourescent proteins to track real-time electrical signals. When a neuron activates, there’s a brief build-up of calcium, which can be used to activate the proteins, literally lighting up the active portion of the brain. However, this activity is still very focused, so if you don’t already know when and where to be looking for the activity, you can easily miss it, particularly considering you need to be looking into a live, healthy brain.
The second method is more of a long-term approach. You track a sub-set of genes that are expressed by brain activity. So over a length of time, you can see the accumulation of this activity, but not when and exactly where it happened.
Fortunately, the Schreiter lab at Howard Hughes Medical Institute have found a way to bring these two concepts together. Now a calcium spike can trigger a permanent color change as it lights up, from green to red when exposed to violet light. This doesn’t eliminate the need for observable, living brains, and still needs further refinement as well. But it could eventually lead to an easier way to track and study brain activity.
Source: A new protein looks like Christmas lights and helps us track brain activity by Adi Robertson, The Verge.com