A team of neuroscientists announced a pretty cool creation on Wednesday: a completely transparent brain. Using a new technique involving something called hydrogel, the visionary crew turned an entire mouse brain into a rather durable substance that has the consistency of transparent jello. The best part? It still works (for the most part). They call it Clarity.
This is a big deal. The new see-through brains aren't exactly functional enough to serve as transplants, but the new technique does maintain the brain's basic biochemistry. That means that scientists can inject it with chemicals with dye attached and watch what happens. In the past, the main way scientists could see what was happening inside of a brain in real time was through the two-dimension MRI images, which has its limitations. The transparent brains offer a third dimension and a sense of perspective that science has never before seen.
So what exactly do we do with these Clarity-enabled brains? We cure brain diseases, that's what—among other things, of course. Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, told The New York Times that this breakthrough "should give us a much more precise picture of what is happening in the brains of people who have schizophrenia, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and depression." Undoubtedly, research on even more destructive conditions like dementia and Alzheimer's disease will also benefit.
An even more exciting possibility opens up when you combine Clarity with other techniques. It's telling that Karl Deisseroth is listed as a senior author on the paper about the transparent brain technique. He's the same Stanford researcher that's believed to be in the running for the Nobel prize for inventing the field of photogenetics. Photogenetics involves scientists blasting the surface of the brain with beams of light that turns specific activities on or off. By combining photogenetics techniques and a transparent brain, there's really no end to the new kinds of experiments to be done. "It’s really one of the most exciting things we’ve done," Deisseroth said of the research. And remember: this guy's supposed to win a Nobel for the other things he's done.
The research team is already talking about ways to use Clarity on other organs, but it's not necessarily an easy process to replicate. The technique involves injecting hydrogel, a solution that's mostly water but supported by a few larger molecules, and pulling the opaque lipids out of the tissue. According to Kwanghun Chung, who served as the paper's primary author, it was not easy getting the chemistry just right. "I burned and melted more than a hundred brains," he said.