BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: Sci/Tech
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Friday, 28 September, 2001, 21:45 GMT 22:45 UK
Tiny microscope views rat thinking
Rat microscope graphic, BBC
By BBC News Online's Ivan Noble

Scientists working to understand the way the brain works have built a tiny microscope which looks inside a rat's brain as the animal moves around.

We have overcome most of the crucial technical hurdles

Winfried Denk and co-authors
Previous studies have seen scientists examining rat brain tissue or even live rats kept in one place under anaesthetic.

But now it is possible to see inside a rodent's head as it behaves more normally.

"The brain is the organ that controls behaviour and to study the process of controlling behaviour, you have to do this in a situation where the animal can behave - perform tasks, move around and take decisions," Winfried Denk told BBC News Online.

Memory link

Dr Denk said that he and his colleagues were able to cause parts of the rat's brain to fluoresce and then use the fluorescence to look at how the dendrites of the rat's neurons were functioning.

Researchers say looking at rats may help them understand memory
"The dendrites are where the cell collects the inputs from other neurons and makes the decision whether to fire or not.

"Many neuroscientists believe that that's where memory is stored," he said.

The tiny microscope was custom built at Bell Labs, part of Lucent Technologies, and is the result of several years of research.

It weighs 25g (0.9 ounces) - light enough to be carried around by an adult rat.

It is connected by a flexible tether to laser equipment and computer-based imaging technology. The researchers hope to be able to devise an even smaller version.

Technical hurdles

They are also now considering whether to extend the technique to mice.

Research scientists are interested in mice because there are many strains of laboratory mice which have been genetically modified to exhibit certain features.

Some lack key genes, or have certain genes added or replaced.

Being able to look inside the brain of a mammal and see individual cells in action as it completes everyday tasks would be a major step forward for neuroscientists.

"We have overcome most of the crucial technical hurdles in the way of such experiments," Dr Denk and his colleagues write in the journal Neuron.

See also:

09 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Tuning the tubes
24 Nov 99 | Sci/Tech
Scientists see memory creation
10 Jun 99 | Sci/Tech
Scientists see atoms in diamond
01 May 98 | Sci/Tech
Rats 'like a laugh'
28 Apr 98 | Sci/Tech
Maternal care fails in space
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Sci/Tech stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Sci/Tech stories