Editorial Feature

Brain Awareness Week: Understanding the Brain with Optics

brain awareness week, brain imaging

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What is Brain Awareness Week and Why is it Important?

Brain Awareness Week was founded by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives (DABI), established in 1992 in the US, and the European Dana Alliance for the Brain (EDAB), founded in 1997 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and is coordinated by the Dana Foundation.

Each March since 1996, the Dana Foundation has held Brain Awareness Week, which hosts a range of activities and involves thousands of partners across 120 countries. The event is key to sharing insights into how the brain works and impacts our daily lives.

Partners involved in the event play an important role in advancing public understanding about the brain and sharing knowledge with their communities. Brain Awareness Week arms the public with information to allow them to make informed decisions about their health, and the health of their families. It also inspires the next generation, ensuring that neuroscientific discovery will maintain progress into the future.

How Do We Study the Brain and Why?

We study the brain to understand disease, both physical and psychological. The ancient Egyptians are famous for their mummification practices and it is these methods that allowed them to gain the first insights into the human brain. They were the first to describe the cerebral cortex, they were also the first to describe conditions such as migraine, epilepsy, strokes, tetanus, and Bell’s palsy. As a result, neuroscience is often considered to have its beginnings in ancient Egypt. Thousands of years have passed and modern scientists now have an arsenal of tools that allow them to study the brain.

The most useful of these tools are imaging techniques, such as electroencephalography (EEG), computerized tomography (CT), Positron Emission Tomography Scan (PET), Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).

The Use of Optics in Neuroscience: Revolutionizing How We See the Brain

Over the last few decades, optical brain imaging has developed into a rich and diverse sub-sector of neuroscience. One major way that it is revolutionizing the field is that it is allowing scientists to investigate real-time brain activity in an unprecedented way.

The most widely used imaging technique in neuroscience studies is likely blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) functional MRI (fMRI). However, it has its limitations in that it is an indirect and imprecise measure of brain activity. It is based on the relationship between blood flow and levels of oxygenation within the brain and neural activity. This relationship is not clearly defined and scientists remain uncertain as to how accurately the BOLD signal can describe neural activity.

Combining the BOLD signal with fiber optics recordings has emerged as a technique that can separate the BOLD signal from the underlying neural activity, shining a light on the true nature of the relationship. The technique is fairly challenging, although it presents a worthwhile avenue to explore as it allows researchers the opportunity to gain powerful insights into the workings of the brain linked with cognitive activity, emotion, pathology, and more.

Groundbreaking Optics Research in Neuroscience

Recent research published in the journal Nature Methods demonstrates how BOLD fMRI recordings can be enhanced with fiber optic recordings.

A team of researchers at the University of Zurich, led by Kristina Schulz, combined fMRI recordings of the BOLD signal alongside fiber optic recordings of fluorescent calcium indicator signals.

In this rodent study, the team investigated the relationship between these two signals in the somatosensory cortex. Calcium indicators were selected as they measure several aspects of cortical dynamics, such as neuronal network activations and glial signaling, via single-photon excitation picked up by a conventional optical fiber, providing a reliable alternative to electrophysiological recordings.

The scientists found that in using this multimodal approach, they were able to measure signals that have previously been inaccessible with traditional electrophysiological recordings. For the first time, they were able to see the relationship between astrocytic activity and the BOLD signal. This research was vitally important for enhancing the capabilities of fMRI and providing scientists with a tool to investigate brain activity in greater detail.

Other important breakthroughs in the field include the CLARITY method, a revolutionary optical technique developed to convert the brain into transparent tissue by removing the lipids via electrophoresis and combining the technique of light-sheet fluorescence microscopy to produce whole-brain imaging.

Another example of recent important advances in the field of optics in neuroscience is the recent progress of ontogenetic probes. Recent research has successfully developed these probes that leverage the bi-directional nature of light transmitted by optical fibers for both imaging and manipulating neural activity.

Future Directions of Brain Study

The above-described advancements are not without their limitations and future research will likely focus on overcoming these and further improving the accuracy, precision, and reliability of imaging techniques. As technology continues to advance, it is likely that we will learn more about pathology, which will lead to better prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of physical and psychological diseases.

References and Further Reading

Brain Awareness Week. [Online]. Brain Awareness Week. Available at: https://brainawareness.org/about/

Chung, K., Wallace, J., Kim, S., Kalyanasundaram, S., Andalman, A., Davidson, T., Mirzabekov, J., Zalocusky, K., Mattis, J., Denisin, A., Pak, S., Bernstein, H., Ramakrishnan, C., Grosenick, L., Gradinaru, V. and Deisseroth, K., 2013. Structural and molecular interrogation of intact biological systems. Nature, 497(7449), pp.332-337. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature12107

Gary Boas. Fiber Optics Revolutionizes Neuroscience. [Online]. Photonics. Available at: https://www.photonics.com/Articles/Fiber_Optics_Revolutionizes_Neuroscience/a52127

Martín Araguz, A., Bustamante Martínez, C., Emam Mansour, M. and Moreno Martínez, J., 2002. Neurociencia en el Egipto faraónico y en la escuela de Alejandría. Revista de Neurología, 34(12), p.1183. https://neurologia.com/articulo/2001461

Miyamoto, D. and Murayama, M., 2016. The fiber-optic imaging and manipulation of neural activity during animal behavior. Neuroscience Research, 103, pp.1-9. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016801021500228X

Schulz, K., Sydekum, E., Krueppel, R., Engelbrecht, C., Schlegel, F., Schröter, A., Rudin, M. and Helmchen, F., 2012. Simultaneous BOLD fMRI and fiber-optic calcium recording in rat neocortex. Nature Methods, 9(6), pp.597-602. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22561989/

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Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.


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