Of Neurons and Photons

17 Aug

I’m currently settling into my new apartment for senior year, but I did have time to see this headline this morning:  “Holograms Reveal Brain’s Inner Workings.”

Obviously, the first thing I thought of was this:

I mean, obviously.

The real article, as usual, is simultaneously cooler and less cool than science fiction. I love that the intro compares bringing neurons into sharper focus with bringing astronomical objects into view. I like to think we have two final frontiers, equally in importance but opposite in direction.

The article states that this new microscopy technique (Digital Holographic Microscopy, or DHM) “accurately visualizes the electrical activities of hundreds of neurons simultaneously, in real-time, without damaging them with electrodes, which can only record activity from a few neurons at a time.”

And “Accurately visualizing the electrical activities of hundreds of neurons simultaneously, in real-time” is kind of major. Our ability to monitor brain activity is honestly not that great. It’s been improving for decades now, but it’s still not what one could wish for. And it is the electrical activity that’s a big deal, not necessarily just the shapes and positions of neurons, which can be measured (although the measuring itself may damage or distort them) in usually more invasive and old-fashioned ways.

So, if there are no major drawbacks or flaws, this is a pretty important new technology, and could hasten the process of research in the field. (As opposed to the above Firefly scene, which is shiny, but really, what does that accomplish that a computer screen couldn’t accomplish? Also, Firefly + neuroscience + the level of scientific hand-waving I am willing to put up with in fiction for the sake of a good story is a whole different post.)

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