This thimble-sized microscope could revolutionize neuroscience research

Mice are energetic little buggers, which is bad news for scientists who want to get a look at their brains while they're scurrying around. But at last, researchers have perfected a high-powered, miniaturized fluorescent microscope that can be mounted on a mouse's head and used to monitor the activity of as many as 200 brain cells while the mouse goes about its business.

In the past, catching a glimpse of a mouse's brain in action required that the animal be held in place, or trained to walk on a moving platform. In contrast, the mini-microscope (which weighs in at under 2 grams) will permit researchers to not only monitor the brain activity of mice in motion, but will likely allow them to forego the training stage altogether.


"It's like a little high tech hat," said Stanford University's Mark Schnitzer, who co-led the development of the mini microscope with engineering professor Abbas El Gamal. "The mouse can behave very naturally and freely."

What's more, the device is composed entirely of components that are either mass-produced, or capable of being mass-produced — and with the cost and size of electronic components dropping by the day, Schnitzer and Gamal expect the tiny microscopes will cost peanuts to manufacture. (The mini microscope is actually the second one designed by Schnitzer and Gamal's team. As a point of reference, the individual optical and electronic components of their first microscope cost between $25,000 and $50,000 a pop. For the newer, smaller, more powerful microscope? $1—$10.)

According to David Kleinfeld, a physics professor at UCSD, the technology has the potential to revolutionize the way scientists study brain function in mice. "The system as a whole represents an order of magnitude improvement in size and price point over past designs," Kleinfeld said. "[It] may lead to a quantum jump in the ubiquity of imaging in biomedical research."


The research team debuted their miniaturized microscope in Sunday's issue of Nature Methods

[Via Discovery News and Technology Review]

Top image via Dan Stober/Stanford News Service. Image of mouse with microscope via Nature


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