Skip to main content

New type of microscope can peer into the brain of a living, moving creature

It’s not every day that scientists invent a whole new type of microscope, but that’s exactly what researchers in Germany have achieved with a new project. A collaboration between Helmholtz Zentrum München, Technical University of Munich, the Department of Nuclear Medicine, and Munich School of Bioengineering, the so-called NeuBtracker is an open source microscope that allows people to observe neuronal activities in the brain of a zebrafish larvae without affecting its behavior.

That’s exciting for scientists who want to better understand the brain because it makes it possible to look at how neurons behave, while at the same time tracking natural behavior. The results could have serious implications for everything from building more brain-like computers to testing out drugs.

“NeuBtracker works by synchronizing two cameras,” Gil Westmeyer, a professor at Helmholtz Zentrum München, told Digital Trends. “One looks at the entire arena in which the larvae are freely swimming and measures the position, speed, velocity, as well as tail and fin movements of the larva; the other camera stays centered on the brain of the zebrafish and provides a magnified view of the fluorescence signals showing the brain activity. This ‘tracking’ of the brain by the fluorescence camera is achieved via a galvanometric mirror system that obtains the information on the position and likely swimming direction of the larva from the first camera. Importantly, NeuBtracker thus works without moving stages, objectives or light beams, which may be perceived by the larvae and perturb their natural behavior.”

Because zebrafish are vertebrates, they share important features with the body plan of humans, although their neuronal circuits are much simpler than our own. That gives researchers the chance to understand how specific sets of stimuli are converted into behaviors by certain neuronal networks in the larval brain. These could be used to extract principles regarding which network architectures and patterns of network activity can support different types of “computation.

Dr. Antonella Lauri
Dr. Antonella Lauri

“We hope that the open source instrument NeuBtracker will be applied, adapted, and improved by other laboratories in the world to study these fundamental research questions by enabling simultaneous neuro and behavioral imaging across the entire nervous system in an intact organism,” Westmeyer continued. “Another more applied line of research that NeuBtracker empowers is to screen for the combined effects of pharmacological compounds on the behavior and brain activity simultaneously. Since zebrafish larvae are swimming in water, such screens can be conducted very efficiently and can provide important filters and initial hypotheses on which compounds may have desired neuroactive effects that could be further tested for future medical applications.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Nature Methods.

Editors' Recommendations

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
AI turned Breaking Bad into an anime — and it’s terrifying
Split image of Breaking Bad anime characters.

These days, it seems like there's nothing AI programs can't do. Thanks to advancements in artificial intelligence, deepfakes have done digital "face-offs" with Hollywood celebrities in films and TV shows, VFX artists can de-age actors almost instantly, and ChatGPT has learned how to write big-budget screenplays in the blink of an eye. Pretty soon, AI will probably decide who wins at the Oscars.

Within the past year, AI has also been used to generate beautiful works of art in seconds, creating a viral new trend and causing a boon for fan artists everywhere. TikTok user @cyborgism recently broke the internet by posting a clip featuring many AI-generated pictures of Breaking Bad. The theme here is that the characters are depicted as anime characters straight out of the 1980s, and the result is concerning to say the least. Depending on your viewpoint, Breaking Bad AI (my unofficial name for it) shows how technology can either threaten the integrity of original works of art or nurture artistic expression.
What if AI created Breaking Bad as a 1980s anime?
Playing over Metro Boomin's rap remix of the famous "I am the one who knocks" monologue, the video features images of the cast that range from shockingly realistic to full-on exaggerated. The clip currently has over 65,000 likes on TikTok alone, and many other users have shared their thoughts on the art. One user wrote, "Regardless of the repercussions on the entertainment industry, I can't wait for AI to be advanced enough to animate the whole show like this."

Read more
4 simple pieces of tech that helped me run my first marathon
Garmin Forerunner 955 Solar displaying pace information.

The fitness world is littered with opportunities to buy tech aimed at enhancing your physical performance. No matter your sport of choice or personal goals, there's a deep rabbit hole you can go down. It'll cost plenty of money, but the gains can be marginal -- and can honestly just be a distraction from what you should actually be focused on. Running is certainly susceptible to this.

A few months ago, I ran my first-ever marathon. It was an incredible accomplishment I had no idea I'd ever be able to reach, and it's now going to be the first of many I run in my lifetime. And despite my deep-rooted history in tech, and the endless opportunities for being baited into gearing myself up with every last product to help me get through the marathon, I went with a rather simple approach.

Read more
This bracelet helps you fall asleep faster and sleep longer

This content was produced in partnership with Apollo Neuroscience.
Have you been struggling to get the recommended seven hours of sleep? It's always frustrating when you get in bed at a reasonable time, then toss and turn for a hours before you actually sleep. The quality of that sleep is important too. If you're waking up multiple times during the night, you're likely not getting the quality REM cycle sleep that truly rejuvenates your body. If traditional remedies like herbal teas and noise machines just aren't helping, maybe it's time to try a modern solution. Enter the Apollo wearable.

Now we understand being a little skeptical. How can a bracelet on your wrist or ankle affect your sleep patterns? Certainly the answer to a better night's sleep can't be so simple. We considered these same things when we first heard of it. We'll dive deeper into the science behind the Apollo wearable, but suffice it to say that many people have experienced deeper, uninterrupted sleep while wearing one.
A non-conventional approach to better sleep

Read more