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Brainbows in Real Time! Well, almost.

March 26, 2010

Rheanna Sand

Did we call it or what? Less than a week after the red and green glowing sperm appeared in Science magazine, "brainbows in real time" is published in Nature Neuroscience!

Okay, so it's not quite brainbows yet - they are only using green - but it's still a major step forward in a budding technique known as neuroluminescence. Eva Naumann and crew from Harvard and CIT have made zebrafish with neurons that glow when activated. That's right - brain cells that light up when the fish is thinking.

Science in Seconds Blog by Rheanna Sand


These glowing neurons express a fusion protein that couples green fluorescent protein (GFP) with the calcium-sensitive aequorin. It’s a perfect marriage - aequorin can detect signals on a very fast time scale, and GFP boosts its luminescence by up to 90%.

The ironic thing is, in order to get the best results, the researchers didn't "look" at the glowing cells with cameras, but used a photomultiplier tube, a highly sensitive detector of UV, visible, and infrared light waves. This way, the fish were not bombarded by excitation light or anaesthetized, but were allowed to swim freely.

They did use cameras to see if the right neurons were expressing GFP-aequorin. Targeting is crucial, since having every neuron glow is just as useless as having none glow at all. In one experiment, they targeted a group of 20 hypothalamic neurons (out of some 100,000 in the zebrafish brain) and measured their activity during sleep/wake cycles. There are some amazing videos that show bursts of photons as the fish have the incredibly complex thought of SWIM AWAY.

There's no doubt this technique is on its way up in the world of neuroscience. So what should I suggest next? How about transgenic people with eyes that glow different colours for different moods? I wouldn't be surprised….


Nature doi:10.1038/nn.2518

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