A Korean research team has developed a technology that can identify the complex activity of neural circuits in rainbow colors. Since brain activities can be seen with the naked eye, the technology is expected to be utilized in the research and development of new cures for brain diseases. In the long term, the method is likely to lead to the development of a brain map that outlines the brain’s neuro-network.
The Korea Institute of Science and Technology announced on November 25 that a team led by George J. Augustine from the Center for Functional Connectomics at KIST has successfully developed a sensor protein that shows neural network activity in rainbow colors.
The research team applied the new science of optogenetics that uses luminescent proteins in brain research to the development of the fluorescent sensor protein called SuperClomeleon. SuperClomeleon changes colors according to the level of chlorine ions in nerve cells.
In particular, the team utilized an automated robot that can produce 100 proteins at once when the sequence of a certain gene is set up. The robot was made in collaboration with Dr. Homme W. Hellinga from the Department of Neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center.
When the artificially-engineered protein is injected into a neuron, the protein becomes red in a chlorine ion-free environment. As the level of chlorine ions rises, the color of the protein changes to yellow, green, blue, and purple. This means that it is possible to identify whether or not a specific nerve cell inhibits the excitability of another neuron through changes in color.
Dr. Augustine said, “Our team made it possible to clearly see neural circuits by increasing the signal strength of fluorescent protein Clomeleon by six times, which was developed in 2000 for the measurement of chlorine ions.” He added, “My goal is to complete a map that connects the functions between neurons and synapses in brain circuits, which are far more complicated than computer chips.”
This study was published online in the October 9 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, a weekly scientific journal published by the Society for Neuroscience.