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Shining a light on brain imaging

Yoan LeChasseur, Optogenetic Engineer with Doric Lenses, stands next to the fibre-optic drawing tower that produced the fibre for the microprobe he helped to create as a PhD student at Université Laval.

Yoan LeChasseur, Optogenetic Engineer with Doric Lenses, stands next to the fibre-optic drawing tower that produced the fibre for the microprobe he helped to create as a PhD student at Université Laval.

By merging today’s optical technologies with biology, researchers are developing new medical imaging technologies that promise to provide more detailed information than ever before about what’s happening inside the human brain. Researchers with the Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations NCE (CIPI) are leading the way with some remarkable innovations, including technology that earned recognition as one of 2011’s most important breakthroughs.

Physicist Daniel Côté, for example, is using short pulses of laser-generated light to zoom in on individual brain cells to look for damage to white matter, at a level of precision not possible with traditional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines. The Université Laval professor compares the move from MRI to optical techniques to switching from a black and white television to a colour television. By varying the wavelength of the laser, he can generate images of different sections of the brain without the use of any contrast agents.

Dr. Côté’s research includes using mice to study the progression of multiple sclerosis, which remains a poorly understood disease. Thanks to their precision, his lasers can pinpoint the smallest signs of damage caused by the disease. He expects the information gained by examining individual cells in a live subject to lead to earlier diagnosis and better therapeutic agents. The technology could also be used to study other neurological conditions, such as nerve injuries, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s.

Other CIPI members have developed technology to help us understand how the brain functions by directly observing the minute electrical signals used by neurons to communicate with one another. The “optrode” developed by Yves De Koninck, Réal Vallée and Yoan LeChasseur combines optical and electrical sensors in one device. Thin enough to insert into a brain without doing damage, it allows researchers to record the behaviour of a single cell. The technology was hailed by Quebec Science magazine as one of the top 10 discoveries of 2011.

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