A group of scientists at Virginia-based Janelia Research Campus, which operates under the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, have engineered a special type of calcium-sensitive fluorescent protein which permanently marks neurons using ultra-violet light when they are activated due to an electrical impulse — i.e. any human body action. This has enabled scientists to study that particular part of the brain at length.
For example, emotion such as anger sends specific electrical signals to the brain, and neurons in a particular area of the brain get lit up. If they stay illuminated for a longer time, neuroscientists get more time to study them. Notably, calcium plays a crucial role in neuron signalling.
What’s more, a 32-year-old Gujarati woman from far-flung Devgadh Baria town of the tribal Dahod district, played a key role in this study.
Ronak Patel, a biomedical engineer, was responsible for characterizing photo-physical properties of the new protein. “This newly developed protein provides great insights into how neurons connect with each other to pass information during a specific behaviour,” Patel told TOI over the phone from Virginia. “This new version of calcium sensor will revolutionize brain research.”
Patel is particularly keen to use the finding to fight disabilities. “Sometimes due to brain injury, certain region of the brain gets damaged, resulting in permanent blindness,” she said.
“Also, some babies are born blind with neurological visual impairment. In such cases, the eyes are normal but the information pathway through which an image from the eye is perceived to the brain is damaged and that can lead to blindness. If researchers can help identify the damaged pathway and find a way to repair it, then it might help cure blindness in those people,” added Ronak.
At present, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is the most common brain scanning method used to detect neurological diseases and psychiatric disorders.