Light-up proteins could allow researchers to see thoughts and memories in the brain

A new light-up protein could revolutionize neuroscience by allowing scientists to see memories in the brains of mice, and eventually humans.

Robert Campbell, a University of Alberta chemistry professor, and his lab have created a light-up protein using components of jellyfish and coral DNA. This can serve as a valuable tool in neuroscience and help understand how memories are formed and stored.

“We can see thinking happening and neurons firing by looking deeper into the brain than ever before,” he said.

Previously, only the top layer of neurons could be visualized in the brain with modern fluorescent techniques. Thanks to Campbell and his team of “protein engineers,” inner portions of the brain can be studied using the new approach.  

Older methods used green fluorescing whereas Campbell’s method utilizes red fluorescing. Since mammals are more ‘transparent’ to red light than any other colours, red light penetrates further into their tissues.

In a lab setting, genetically modified animals, like lab mice, could be created with these fluorescent proteins as part of their brain meshwork. In doing so, individual neurons or entire portions of mouse brain could light up red when the mouse has a thought.

Campbell is part of an extensive network of specialists across Canada and despite being a chemist, his collaborators have a wide variety of neuroscientific interests from stress and strokes to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. However, instead of focusing on specific research problems, Campbell’s main interest is developing tools that others in the scientific community may use to further their own research.

“I’m really focused on the tool building which makes me a little unusual,” he said. “It’s much more common to be driven by a medical problem.”

Campbell credits his postdoctoral supervisor the late Roger Y. Tsien for instilling this interest in tool building in him during his time at the University of California San Diego. In 2008, Tsien was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on the traditional green fluorescent protein.

“I benefited immensely from being in the right place at the right time and getting to work under the Nobel Prize winner for the fluorescent protein,” Campbell said.

For Campbell, his own research advancements are quite meaningful because they brings him closer to understanding how memory is stored in the brain, something he’s particularly interested in.

For his research, Campbell was selected from more than six hundred candidates to receive the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Foundation Grant. He will receive one million dollars over a seven-year period to pursue his research. He said being recognized for his research was “extremely humbling.” It will allow him to further optimize and develop this technology.

Campbell said the kind of interdisciplinary research he’s doing contributes to greater collaboration between STEM fields and academics.

“Research like this has inspired many chemists and biochemists to make some great new tools to further neuroscience and fields outside their own,” he said.

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