Columbia University: Monitoring Living Brain Cells with Ultra Small Particles

The field of nanoscience promises new tools for studying the brain, controlling artificial limbs, and treating mind and body, researchers argue in a Nature Methods review paper, “Time for NanoNeuro.”

With as many neurons in the brain as stars in the galaxy, scientists have struggled since the dawn of neuroscience to crack the mysteries of the brain. Combining neuroscience with nanoscience, the study of matter at the nanoscale, could revolutionize our ability to study the brain and treat its disorders, argues a pair of researchers at Columbia University and Spain’s Donostia International Physics Center (DIPC).

“Nanomaterials are biocompatible, ultra small, and interact with light in interesting ways,” said Rafael Yuste, a biology professor at Columbia University. “They are ideally suited for imaging and stimulating neurons in the brain, and could have a major impact in neuroscience, neurology, and psychiatry. There are also many possible brain-technology applications for consumers.”

Writing in Nature Methods, Yuste and Aitzol Garcia-Etxarri, a physicist at DIPC, make the case for a nanoscience-neuroscience merger. The piece, Time for NanoNeuro, is part call-to-arms and part summary of the latest scientific literature. In it, they cover the microscopic tools in use today or under development, and single out two types of nanoparticles that could serve as high-quality, non-invasive instruments for recording and stimulating brain cells.

The first, quantum dots, are tiny flecks of semiconductor that could replace fluorescent dyes as a tool for imaging living cells. Quantum dots, for example, could be injected into the body to target tumors or neural circuits. The second, plasmonic nanoparticles, could be used to focus light and heat on individual cells to activate them with laser-like precision.

Clinicians could use non-toxic nanoparticles to treat mental or neurological disease as an alternative to current methods used by neuroscientists, which include highlighting cells with fluorescent calcium markers or by modifying cells to fluoresce when hit with light. This latter method, known as optogenetics, has revolutionized neuroscience, but because it genetically alters cells it can’t easily be applied to humans. By contrast, biocompatible nanoparticles could potentially be implanted in the brain to treat diseases like schizophrenia or Parkinson’s, or to help people who have lost an arm or a leg manipulate a prosthetic.

The Nature Methods piece comes as a new nano-neuroscience initiative gets underway at Columbia. Under a $450,000 grant from the Kavli Foundation, Yuste has teamed up with Paul Euen, director of the Cornell Kavli Institute for Nano Science, to launch a fellowship program aimed at training tomorrow’s nano-neuroscience leaders. This fall, the first postdoc selected as a NanoNeuro Fellow began shuttling between labs at Cornell and Columbia’s Kavli Institute of Brain Science to become become an expert in both disciplines.