BU researchers developed a new method and microscope allowing them to see electrical activity between brain cells in exquisite detail

By Kat J. McAlpine

A new microscopy approach — capable of imaging the voltage of brain cells as they process information — uses genetically engineered proteins and an ultrafast microscope (with an onboard, light-reflecting “disco ball”) to measure voltage inside individual neurons and within networks of brain cells, phenomena that happen incredibly fast and have been very difficult to observe until now.

Michael Economo (BME)

As you read this, electrical activity is ping-ponging between cells in your brain at very high speeds. There are about 86 billion neurons inside the human brain, working together to transmit information that empowers thoughts, movements, perception, behavior, and regulatory processes throughout the human body. That cacophony of activity happens automatically, without us making any conscious effort, as brain cells fire electrical discharges that send signals and information between cells.

“Voltage is the way information is transferred within the brain,” says Assistant Professor Michael Economo (BME).

Jerome Mertz (BME, ECE)

Detecting voltage changes is at the crux of understanding brain activity and how neurons orchestrate complex behaviors of the body and mind. But historically the methods to image electrical activity within the brain have only allowed scientists to glean its presence indirectly, such as a technique called calcium imaging, which detects fluctuations in calcium that hint at voltage changes inside cells.

That’s finally changing, thanks to a new advance in voltage imaging that’s giving neuroscientists the most detailed look yet at how voltage travels through brain cells. “This advance has really broad implications for neuroscience,” says Economo, one of the principal investigators on the project, along with Professor Jerome Mertz (BME, ECE, Physics). The team published their research on August 21 in Nature Neuroscience.

For the full story, visit the BU Photonics Center website.