By: Patrick Kiger
You've probably heard self-help gurus talk about the importance of clearing your mind, but Stanford University researchers have figured out a way to do that, literally. In a just-published paper in the scientific journal Nature, they describe a new process that they've invented for making a cadaver mouse brain transparent, so that scientists can get a three-dimensional look inside it without a computer simulation. To greatly simplify, the CLARITY process, as they've named it, involves washing away the fat that normally blocks the view of the brain's cells and replacing it with a see-through gel that holds the brain's structures in place so that they can be studied.
As a Stanford press release explains, neuroscientists no longer will have to make do with slices of brain tissue. Instead, they can examine brain's fine wiring of nerves and molecular structures, and measure and probe them at will with both visible light and chemical tests. So far, they've only tried the process on slivers of human brain tissue, but it's only a matter of time before they render a cadaver human brain transparent as well.
A Los Angeles Times story on the research predicts that it will have a massive, transformational effect on neuroscience, generating mountains of data what will enable researchers to understand the brain's anatomy and how it is altered by diseases such as Alzheimer's or schizophrenia. Already, researchers have used CLARITY to peruse a tissue sample from the brain of a person with autism, and discovered a deeply buried neuron that "looped back on itself," in the words of Karl Deisseroth, the Stanford bioengineer who led the team. Though it will take a lot more work to figure out whether that abnormality has genuine significance, there's at least a glimmer of hope that it might turn out to provide an explanation for the disorder.
Here's a video from Nature's YouTube channel that illustrates how it all works.
Pretty amazing, huh? Probably the only thing that would be cooler would be if we could peer into a living brain. I'm waiting for transhumanist body hackers to come up with a clear plastic replacement for the skull and the skin that covers it, so that some adverturous soul can transform himself into something akin to the Revell Visible Man model that I had when I was a lad.