Researchers from the Leibniz Institute of Photonic Technology (Leibniz IPHT) in Jena and the University of Edinburgh have succeeded in using a hair-thin fibre endoscope to gain insights into hardly-accessible brain structures. For the first time, scientists are able to achieve high-resolution observations of neuronal structures inside deep brain areas of living mice - by the use of the most minimally invasive endoscopic probe reported thus far. Using a hair-thin optical fibre, the researchers can look into deep brain areas of a living mouse as if through a keyhole. 

Recently introduced methods for holographic control of light propagation in complex media enable the use of a multimode fibre as an imaging tool. Based on this new approach, the scientists designed a compact system for fluorescence imaging at the tip of a fibre, offering a much smaller footprint as well as enhanced resolution compared to conventional endoscopes based on fibre bundles or graded-index lenses.

The researchers have shown that it is possible to examine deep brain regions of a living animal model in a minimally invasive way and to achieve high-resolution images at the same time. Using this approach, the research team succeeded in obtaining images of brain cells and neuronal processes in the visual cortex and hippocampus of living mice with resolution approaching one micrometre (i.e. one thousand times smaller than a millimetre). Detailed observations within these areas are crucial for research into sensory perception, memory formation, and severe neuronal diseases such as Alzheimer’s (lat. morbus Alzheimerianus).

Current investigation methods are strongly invasive, such that it is not possible to observe neuronal networks in these inner regions at work without massive destruction of the surrounding tissue - usual endoscopes comprised of hundreds of optical fibres are too large to penetrate such sensitive brain regions, while the neuronal structures are too tiny to be visualised by non-invasive imaging methods such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

This minimally invasive approach will enable neuroscientists to investigate functions of neurons in deep structures of the brain of behaving animals: without perturbing the neuronal circuits in action, it will be possible to reveal the activity of these neuronal circuits while the animal is exploring an environment or learning a new task. Building up on this work, the research team now wants to address the current challenges of neuroscience, which will entail the delivery of advanced microscopy techniques through single fibre endoscopes.