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  • Optical Tools for Mapping and Fixing Complex Biological Systems

Jul 1, 2015


Complex biological systems like the brain present a challenge: their molecular building blocks are organized with nanoscale precision, but support physiological processes and computations that occur over macroscopic length scales. We are creating tools to enable the mapping and repair of such complex systems.

First, we have developed a method for imaging large 3-D specimens with nanoscale precision. We embed a specimen in a swellable polymer, which upon exposure to water expands isotropically in size, enabling conventional diffraction-limited microscopes to do large-volume nanoscopy. Second, we have collaboratively developed strategies to image fast physiological processes in 3-D with millisecond precision, and used them to acquire neural activity maps throughout small organisms. Finally, we have developed a set of genetically encoded reagents, known as optogenetic tools, that when expressed in specific neurons, enable their electrical activities to be precisely driven or silenced in response to millisecond pulses of light.

In this way we aim to enable the systematic mapping, dynamical observation and control of complex biological systems like the brain.

Presenter Ed Boyden is an associate professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at the MIT Media Lab and the MIT McGovern Institute. He leads the Synthetic Neurobiology Group, which develops tools for analyzing and engineering the circuits of the brain. Among other recognitions, he has received the Grete Lundbeck "Brain" Prize, the largest brain research prize in the world, for his work developing optogenetic tools for controlling neurons with light.

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