Watching Brain Cells Track Location

The description of a technical tour de force was published this month. The experimental setup enables us to watch a mouse’s brain cells track the mouse’s location in a virtual environment while the mouse is actually exploring that environment .

The paper “Functional imaging of hippocampal place cells at cellular resolution during virtual navigation” was published November 2010 in Nature Neuroscience.

A mouse navigating a virtual maze. The mouse runs in place on a ball within a computer-generated visual environment that provides the sensation of running through an actual maze. From “Intracellular dynamics of hippocampal place cells during virtual navigation.” By Christopher D. Harvey, Forrest Collman, Daniel A. Dombeck & David W. Tank. Nature, Vol. 461 No. 7266, October 14, 2009.

The team’s virtual maze setup was introduced last year (see video above). In this paper they introduced a custom two-photon microscopy setup that integrates with their virtual maze to enable them to image brain cell (neuron) activity at a high spatial resolution while a mouse is running the maze. Using the setup they record place cell activity in the hippocampus of living and behaving mice.

This technique holds huge potential for resolving questions about brain function. Optical imaging of neuronal activity at a high spatial resolution can

  • display the precise anatomical position of functionally identified neurons within the microcircuitry
  • record from genetically labeled neuronal subtypes
  • enable functional recording from subcellular compartments like dendritic branches and spines
  • identify all neurons (even silent cells)
  • enable the unambiguous identification and recording of the same neurons over many weeks.

It’s with great anticipation that I await further data to flow from the laboratory of Dr. David Tank and colleagues.

Other related blog posts:

Do You Know Where You Are? Place Memory

Nature versus Nurture and Place Memory Development

Spikelets and Place Cells

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