New sensor uses MRI to detect light deep in the brain: Using this approach, researchers can map how light spreads in opaque environments.

Using a specialized MRI sensor, MIT researchers have shown that they can detect light deep within tissues such as the brain.

Imaging light in deep tissues is extremely difficult because as light travels into tissue, much of it is either absorbed or scattered. The MIT team overcame that obstacle by designing a sensor that converts light into a magnetic signal that can be detected by MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

This type of sensor could be used to map light emitted by optical fibers implanted in the brain, such as the fibers used to stimulate neurons during optogenetic experiments. With further development, it could also prove useful for monitoring patients who receive light-based therapies for cancer, the researchers say.

“We can image the distribution of light in tissue, and that’s important because people who use light to stimulate tissue or to measure from tissue often don’t quite know where the light is going, where they’re stimulating, or where the light is coming from. Our tool can be used to address those unknowns,” says Alan Jasanoff, an MIT professor of biological engineering, brain and cognitive sciences, and nuclear science and engineering.

Jasanoff, who is also an associate investigator at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, is the senior author of the study, which appears today in Nature Biomedical Engineering. Jacob Simon PhD ’21 and MIT postdoc Miriam Schwalm are the paper’s lead authors, and Johannes Morstein and Dirk Trauner of New York University are also authors of the paper.

A light-sensitive probe

Scientists have been using light to study living cells for hundreds of years, dating back to the late 1500s, when the light microscope was invented. This kind of microscopy allows researchers to peer inside cells and thin slices of tissue, but not deep inside an organism.

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