Real-life expanding brain technique is blowing some minds


Branches of neurons in a mouse cortex
Picture: Gau et al (Science, 2019)

It is now possible to picture a full-fledged brain just a few days, according to a new study, it may well be a long time, but it really is an incredible accomplishment when you consider that the process would otherwise take weeks.

Brains are not easy to learn – the human brain, for example, contains over 80 billion cells linked by 7,000 connections each, according to the new science release. Even the far smaller races are an incredible challenge to learning comprehensively. The new research combines two microscopic methods to image and examine intelligence like never before.

"It is a new tool for trying to understand biological tissue, not in one cell context, but in a comprehensive multi-cellular context in high resolution", Eric Betsig, Physicist and Nobel Laurate working at the Janna research campus of the Howard Hughes. Medical Institute, told Gizmodo.

Researchers combined two kinds of microscopy, called the expansion microscopy, and the light-arc microscopy of the light beam, in order to image the brain. Expansion microscopy includes first marking interesting features on a pattern with florescent proteins, and then linking them with a polymer gel. An enzyme dodge the tissue, and then the scientists add water, causing the polymer to grow and retain the shape marked by the fluorescent proteins. In this case, they increased the sample by four times.

Expanding fly brain
Photo: Gau et al (Science 2019)

But imaging the expanded fly brain would require approximately 2 billion Voxels, or 3D pixels, which would take weeks for an electron microscope to image. The team decided to combine expansion microscopy with another imaging method called light leaf microscopy. It uses thin, flat laser light sheets and images into flat sections, allowing for a faster process that also reduces background noise.

Even Betzig didn't think the method would work first, he told Gizmodo, but when he saw the results, he was "shocked" by the expansion. Indeed, they are able to combine the methods of making high-resolution images, down to tens of nanometers, according to the paper.

But research is nowhere to be done to create similar human intellectual images, Betsig explains. They keep the methods (and have successfully imagined small pieces of) brain intelligence, but a mouse-brain fly's brain is the equivalent of "walking from a mud hat to the Empire State Building," he said.

The researchers think they could soon be able to quickly and unexpectedly delete multiple fly brains. This is exciting, mainly because intelligence can be connected by the individual, and comparing lots of intelligence could potentially teach us more about how incredible biology's feats really work.

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