TURNING THE BRAIN TRANSPARENT
... using new technologies to see inside your brain
When something is wrong with our bodies we often have to delve inside to try and figure out what has gone wrong. We cut organs open, we explore. The only opportunity to definitively diagnose a brain disorder is after someone has passed away. This is because you can take a piece of brain from a living person like you can with skin or hair. Brain scans try to solve this issue, but they never give us the fine details we need in a diagnosis.
A large part of my research is focused on examining brain diseases. I have had the privilege of examining the brains of deceased boxers from the early 1900s. I am studying the effects of physical trauma (like a concussion, or a blow to the head) on the brain and its relation to the behavioural changes we see afterwards in athletes. At the moment how the brain changes after these events is poorly understood, but we have tools to investigate!
The traditional way to study what goes wrong with the brain is a study called ‘pathology’ or more specifically ‘neuropathology’, ‘neuro’ meaning ‘brain’. Neuropathology involves taking incredibly thin slices of the brain and examining them to see if we can identify what went wrong. We take 7 microns thick slices, which is 1000th of a millimetre—even thinner than a human hair.
After taking these samples we use a procedure that allows us to see specific proteins in the brain. Patterns of proteins often tell us if something is wrong on a cellular level. Certain proteins are always present however in brain diseases some proteins are of more interest than others. What we then look for are patterns to tell us what is going on.
Human brain - day 0
Human brain - day 39
However, we only ever get to see a tiny portion of each brain, so forming a complete picture of what has gone wrong is sometimes very difficult. However, my lab and other labs around the world have been trying to address this problem. We do this by turning the brain see-through! And it actually works. We do this by taking pieces of the brain and removing elements that are less interesting to us, for example, fat, some sugars and other weird things that get in our way! That’s when we use a complicated process which makes the brain transparent.
Here are some videos of my recent work on boxers’ brains that show us the brain in 3D. These images will help us understand how these brains change in response to punches to the head. I hope that you find these images as interesting as I do. Please get in touch if you want to know more. I love blabbering on about my work.