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Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Holographic Brain

According to the holonomic brain theory,
Cognitive function is guided by a matrix of neurological wave interference patterns situated temporally between holographic Gestalt perception and discrete, affective, quantum vectors derived from reward anticipation potentials.
Well, I don't know about that, but a group of neuroscientists have just reported on using holograms as a tool for studying brain function: Three-dimensional holographic photostimulation of the dendritic arbor.

A while ago, scientists worked out how to "cage" interesting compounds, such as neurotransmitters, inside large, inert molecules. Then, by shining laser light of the right wavelength at the cages, it's possible to break them and release what's inside. This is very useful because it allows you to, say, selectively release neurotransmitters in particular places, just by pointing the laser at them.

There's a problem though. The uncaging doesn't happen immediately: the laser has to be pointing at the same point for a certain fixed time. This makes it very difficult to simultaneously stimulate many different points - which is, ideally, what you'd want to do, because in the real brain, everything happens at the same time: a given cell might be receiving input from dozens of others, and sending output to the same number.

One solution is to simply split and block the beam into several smaller, parallell beams. This allows you to hit several spots simultaneously but it suffers from the problem that all the spots have to lie in the same 2D "slice". A bit like how, if you taped several laser pointers together, you could project a complex series of dots onto the wall, but not a 3D one.

This is where holograms come in. As everyone knows, holograms appear to be 3D images. By adopting the same kind of algorithms as are used in the construction of holograms, the authors were able to use a single laser to generate a series of stimulation spots within 3D space. The image above shows that they were able to stimulate a single dendritic spine of a single neuron by uncaging glutamate.

Then they moved on to a real experiment: stimulating several branches of a single cell. What they found was that if you stimulate several branches simultaneously, the overall excitation produced is less than the sum of the individual stimulations.

The bottom graph shows this: the grey line is what you'd expect if it was simply summed. Interestingly, a drug called 4-AP, which is used to provoke epileptic seizures in experimental animals, blocked this effect and made cells respond in a linear fashion.

This is clearly an extremely promising method. I've previously blogged about how it's possible to visualize individual dendritic branches in the living brain using another laser-based method, two-photon microscopy. In theory, therefore, it might be possible to both see, and manipulate, the brain on a microscopic level, all without physically touching it at all.

ResearchBlogging.orgYang S, Papagiakoumou E, Guillon M, de Sars V, Tang CM, & Emiliani V (2011). Three-dimensional holographic photostimulation of the dendritic arbor. Journal of neural engineering, 8 (4) PMID: 21623008

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