If Dr. Karl Deisseroth were an architect, he might be replacing stone or brick walls with floor-to-ceiling glass to build transparent houses. But since he is a neuroscientist at Stanford University, he has done the biological equivalent: invented a technique to make brains transparent, a breakthrough that should give researchers a truer picture of the pathways underlying both normal mental function and neurological illnesses from autism to Alzheimer's. In fact, the first human brain the scientists clarified came from someone with autism.
Deisseroth and his colleagues reported in the online edition of the journal Nature on Wednesday that they had developed a way to replace the opaque tissue in brains (harvested from lab mice or donated by people for research) with "hydrogel," a substance similar to that used for contact lenses.
The result is see-through brains, their innards revealed in a way no current technique can: Large structures such as the hippocampus show up with the clarity of organs in a transparent fish, and even neural circuits and individual cells are visible.
The announcement comes just a week after President Barack Obama announced a $100 million initiative to plumb the mysteries of the brain, and offers hope that at least some of the technological breakthroughs the project envisions are within reach.
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Photo: A CLARITY scan of an entire intact mouse brain is seen in this undated handout image courtesy of Kwanghun Chung and Karl Deisseroth, of Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Stanford University.
Credit: Reuters/Kwanghun Chung and Karl Deisseroth, Howard Hughes Medical Institute/Stanford University/Handout