Using MRI, MIT Engineers Have Found Way to Detect Light Deep in Brain

The new technique could enable detailed studies of how brain cells develop and communicate with each other.

Pictured are blood vessels that now appear bright red after transduction with a gene that gives them photosensitivity. (Courtesy of researchers).

Scientists often label cells with proteins that glow, allowing them to track the growth of a tumor, or measure changes in gene expression that occur as cells differentiate. While this technique works well in cells and some tissues of the body, it has been difficult to apply this technique to image structures deep within the brain, because the light scatters too much before it can be detected. MIT engineers have now come up with a novel way to detect this type of light, known as bioluminescence, in the brain: They engineered blood vessels of the brain to express a protein that causes them to dilate in the presence of light. That dilation can then be observed with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), allowing researchers to pinpoint the source of light. “A well-known problem that we face in neuroscience, as well as other fields, is that it’s very difficult to use optical tools in deep tissue. One of the core objectives of our study was to come up with a way to image bioluminescent molecules in deep tissue with reasonably high resolution,” says Alan Jasanoff, PhD, an MIT professor of biological engineering, brain and cognitive sciences, and nuclear science and engineering.

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