Seeing the Light: Ed Boyden’s Tools for Brain Hackers
Ed Boyden, an engineer turned neuroscientist, makes tools for brain hackers. In his lab at MIT, he’s built a robot that can capture individual neurons and uses light potentially to control major diseases — all in his quest to ‘solve the brain’. To break into a neuron within a living brain, you need a good eye, extreme patience, months of training, and the ability to suck with gentle care. A mouse lies in front of you, brain exposed. Your mission is to impale one of its neurons with the micrometre-wide tip of a glass pipette.
An electrode in the pipette measures the resistance at its tip, and relays the signal to a monitor. You’re watching out for the subtle spikes that tell you that the tip has struck cellular gold. When it is in place, you suck on a rubber tube connected to the pipette - gently at first, to form a seal, and then slightly harder to create a small hole.
If it works, you now have full access to the neuron’s inner workings. You can inject a dye through the hole to map the cell’s many branches. You can measure its electrical activity as it communicates with its neighbours. You can suck out its contents to analyse the chemicals inside it. If you did that for hundreds of connected neurons, you could start to understand the molecules and electric pulses behind the rodent’s thoughts, emotions and memories.