Optical Neurotechnology: Watching Brain Circuits in Action

By Sophie Curtis on September 23, 2015

A combination of technological developments over the last few years have instigated a revolution in the brain sciences. The development of two photon fluorescence microscopy has allowed scientists to observe single neurons, and even sub-cellular processes such as dendrites, while in an intact and functioning brain. Genetically encodable reporters have been developed which allow calcium and voltage signals to be visualised while the brain processes information, and even to manipulate cell function with light.

At the Future Technology Summit in London this week, Simon Schultz, a Royal Society Industry Fellow and Reader in Neurotechnology at Imperial College London, will present how engineers and neuroscientists are working together to “reverse engineer” brain circuits, and discuss how these technologies may lead to advances in treatments for brain degeneration in dementia and natural aging.

We caught up with Simon ahead of the summit to hear more about his work in neurotechnology and how these developments could impact healthcare.

Tell us about your work in optical Neurotechnology.
My research group develop tools for using light to understand how the brain works. One way we do this is by new developing new ways of imaging brain function. Using a device called a "two photon microscope", we are able to observe light given off by single cells in the brain. If a dye or other kind of fluorescent reporter is introduced to those cells, then we can, for instance, use it to watch calcium signals as brain cells communicate. One of the challenges we are working on at the moment is to do that throughout a sufficiently big three-dimensional volume of tissue to observe computations occuring in the brain. A second way we use optical tools is to perturb the activity of brain cells with light. This requires the cells to have a light-sensitive protein inserted into them - but once this is done, we can effectively "hijack" communication in the brain.

How are advancements in neuroscience leading to progress in brain degeneration research and application?
There is currently a bit of a renaissance of research in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's. This is partly because of funding initiatives from a number of governments, but also because of technological advances which mean that we can look at old problems in new ways. For instance, being able to observe what happens to amyloid protein in the brains of mice with Alzheimer-like symptoms, in real time, and while monitoring brain activity, has led to a number of recent insights.

What is the biggest obstacle to integrating your technological development into the healthcare sector?
A lot of the recently developed tools require "gene therapy" - the use of modified viruses or related techniques to genetically modify cells. While there are couple of encouraging examples of clinical trials using this technology - notably for Parkinson's Disease and for treating blindness - it will take quite a while for many of these tools to get out of the lab. Of course, in the meantime, they already provide a lot of insight that can be used with "already approved" techniques such as Deep Brain Stimulation.

Which areas of rapidly advancing technologies do you feel could benefit from cross-industry collaboration?
Pretty much all areas of neurotechnology - most of our recent advances have been highly inter-disciplinary, so bringing very different perspectives to bear upon a problem can be very fruitful.

What emerging technology are you most excited about?
Actually, one "emerging" technology I am excited about at the moment is actually very old - it is called "sleep". I will tell you more at the Future Tech Summit!  

Simon Schultz will be speaking on Day 1 of the Future Technology Summit in London, 24-25 September. Other medtech speakers include Sabine Hauert, Uni of Bristol; Elaine Warburton, QuantuMDx; Stephen Dunne, Neuroscience Research at Starlab; and Vanessa Diaz, UCL. View the agenda here.

The Future Technology Summit is taking place alongside the Deep Learning Summit For more information and to register, please visit the event website here.

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