Probe smaller than a human hair to map the brain

Researchers are looking at creating a tool to penetrate animal brains and reveal neural activity. The team behind the research is using the newest optical fiber technology.

A notoriously difficult problem in neuroscience is the lack of direct access to the brain and neural activity, but this might change with a new research project looking at creating one of the world’s smallest probes in a form of optical fibers. Being encapsulated by the skull and protected by the blood-brain barrier, researchers are consistently struggling to find suitable methods for recording, examining and observing the brain activity directly.

The research project is called Multi-BRAIN and is led by Christos Markos, an Associate Professor at the Department of Photonics Engineering at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). The research is based on a grant from the Lundbeck Foundation, funding Christos Markos’ aim to unravel the activities in the brain directly through extremely tiny fiber probes.  

“The optical fiber will be the smallest fiber probe, that I know of, which can enter the brain to accelerate pre-clinical research. If it succeeds, we will obtain a new tool that can potentially diagnose, understand and help decipher several major neurodegenerative diseases,” says Christos Markos, who hopes the mini-probe would be applicable in future research areas looking at diseases such as Alzheimer and Parkinson’s disease.

The project aims at developing an optical fiber probe that can stimulate neurons in the brain while recording and imaging their activity instantaneously. That way the tool can depicture neural activity of the brain while testing pre-clinical procedures.  

“The ability to deliver compounds to the brain through the probe using microfluidic channels - while mapping the activity, would be a valuable addition we aim to incorporate into this small probe. Together with the idea of using the probe to activate and record neurons, we would have a strong tool for future brain research,” says Christos Markos.

Optical fibers
The probe is expected to be even smaller than a human hair and will enter the brain through a micro hole in the skull. That way it will be able to enter the brain while doing minimal damage to the brain tissue.

In average, a human hair measures around 100 micrometers. One micrometer is a millionth of a meter, meaning the probe would be 100 times smaller than a centimeter.

“The technology of optical fibers relies upon a thermal-drawing process. The materials that will end up as the final fiber are molten together in a furnace, after which it is stretched out to a very thin strand. It is this kind of operation that is also used for kilometers of optical fibers used for telecommunication,” tells Christos Markos, who envision the technology can be applicable in brain research.

To operate on a scale like this is inconceivable to most people, but for Christos Markos it has been a dream to work with a project like this for more than five years.

“This has been my scientific vision for more than five years. The idea of combining multiple scientific disciplines with the new technological advances in optical fibers can hopefully take us forward in understanding and solving several neurodegenerative diseases,” says Christos Markos.

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