At Princeton University, a massive breakthrough in the field of science was achieved earlier this week, as the brain activity of a moving animal was recorded in 3D for the first time. Although the animal in question, the Caenorhabditis Elegans nematode, a 1 millimeter-long worm, has a rather simple brain, comprised of only 302 neurons, it still paves the way for future breakthroughs where the technique could be applied to complex animals and even humans.
Up to this point, scientists were able to document only specific parts of the brain in relation to a moving body part, not the entire brain. What is even more beneficial is the fact that the worm was able to move freely, without any limitations placed by the experiment itself. Animals that underwent brain scans in the past required them to be immobilized or unconscious.
The research team captured images that showed how the worm actually plans ahead, firing up neuron sequences before moving forward or backward or when turning. Besides making a big leap in neural imaging techniques, this also helped scientists reach a better understanding of how neurons work on a larger scale, not just specific synapses.
For instance, when the worm decided to go forward, a series of 77 neurons started firing up. After just a split second, the worm’s body started moving forward. By seeing what specific neurons and synapses started working, scientists could build a map of the brain in a more conclusive fashion.
The method used by the team in order to record the worm’s neural activity while in motion revolved around the use of calcium. By using a specific instrument, the calcium levels present in the brain’s cells were measured. In order for the team to capture these levels as the worm was moving, a dose of a luminescent protein was administered to the worm.
When this protein comes in contact with calcium, it emits small traces of light. This light is then captured by a series of microscopic cameras that feed the information back into a 3D imaging software. The final product is a 3D map of the brain in function.
Although this might seem for some as something less important when compared to other recent breakthroughs, its application in the field of neuroscience is insurmountable. Even though the imaging technology is still in its early stages, the fact that this process allows the animal to move freely and unhindered allows researchers to document on complex neural activities and behaviors.
Bearing in mind the fact that the brain activity of a moving animal was recorded in 3D while in a relatively natural environment, this could mean that science is just a couple of steps away from discovering how neural activity influences social behavior. The process used when animals plan to make specific actions, in other words, think in advance, can also be more clearly understood, but this requires for further advances to be made in the field of neural imaging.