The team led by prof. Stefan hell used the STED light microscope he developed, which makes structures with a resolution of less than 70 nanometers visible – about 1000 times finer than a hair. "Looking directly into the organism opens up a new tur in neurology and can provide insights into diseases such as alzheimer’s, autism or parkinson’s," hell told the news agency dpa. The aim is to decipher fundamental molecular processes in the brain.
The team from the gottingen-based max planck institute for biophysical chemistry published their work in this friday’s "science" magazine. Prof. Leo peichl of the max planck institute for brain research in frankfurt praised the technology. "This is a very interesting improvement for biological research. This will advance science enormously," he said in response to a question from the dpa.
The 49-year-old bright has already received a number of prestigious awards for his novel light microscope, including the german future prize and the korber prize. The technology makes it possible for the first time to penetrate the molecular structures of living cells – something that was impossible with conventional light microscopes. And electron microscopes can only be used to examine dissected, dead cells.
Hell succeeded in breaking a barrier that scientists considered practically insurmountable. In 1873, physicist ernst abbe realized that objects closer than 200 nanometers cannot be imaged separately from one another. But with the help of fluorescent molecules, hell broke this law. Closely neighboring details are temporarily kept dark so that they do not light up at the same time but one after the other and can therefore be differentiated. According to hell, other imaging methods in brain research have not yet been able to achieve this level of detail.
To look inside the brains of living organisms, researchers used genetically modified mice that produce coarse amounts of a yellow fluorescent protein in their nerve cells. During the recordings, the rodents were anesthetized and their body temperature, respiration, blood saturation and heart function were monitored. The images, taken at intervals of seven to eight minutes, revealed something surprising to the scientists: the tiny spiny processes at the synapses (contact points) of the nerve cells in the upper layer of the brain can move and change their shape.
"I am a physicist. I developed the procedure, but it probably has a gross benefit because it offers new ways of looking at things," said the scientist. In the future, for example, certain proteins could be dyed, which play a central role in diseases such as parkinson’s disease. The super-sharp images allow, for example, insights into how these proteins are distributed at the synapses.
Hell emphasized: "it’s also about fundamental questions: how does thinking work?? How information is stored?"He sees potential applications not only in the life sciences, but also in other areas such as solid-state research. The director of the max planck institute for biophysical chemistry holds the patent for the STED microscope – the first example produced by leica has been in gottingen since 2008. According to him, there are already several hundred devices worldwide.