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Neuroscientists Capture Real-Time Brain Dynamics Via Brain Imaging With Voltage-Sensitive Dye

brain imaging of the visual cortexImaging with voltage-sensitive dye is a method to capture real-time brain dynamics. The dye incorporates in the brain cells’ membrane and changes fluorescence whenever these receive or send electrical signals. Hence, high resolution camera systems allow to simultaneously capture activities of millions of nerve cells across several square millimeters across the brain. Check the end of this report for a link to a website with video demonstration.

First-time visualization of grating pattern motion across the brain surface
As a stimulus, the researchers used simple oriented gratings with alternating black-white stripes drifting at constant speed across a monitor screen. These stimuli have been used for more than 50 years in visual neuroscience and still are conventionally applied in medical diagnostics. However, brain activity that signals both the grating’s orientation and its motion simultaneously has not been detected so far. Such signals can now be demonstrated for the first time. Note that further computational steps including sophisticated analysis were needed before those smallest brain activity signals became visible.

a multiplex image of the brain

Visualization of how the primary visual cortex encodes both orientation and retinotopic motion of a visual object simultaneously. As a visual stimulus the scientists used a horizontal grating moving downwards on a monitor screen (sketched at most right). From left to right: The brain’s vascular surface and a 20 millisecond camera snapshot of brain activity. Dark regions represent domains in which nerve cells are active which encode the horizontal grating orientation (see pattern of red outlines). At the same time, overlaid on this patchy map, a traveling activity wave was observed moving downwards across the brain (red represents peak activity, blue depicts low amplitude). The wave thus represented the actual movement of the grating stripes independently from the orientation encoding pattern.

Cortical mapping of object orientation
Optical imaging has become state-of-the-art since it allows fine grained resolution of cortical pattern activity, so-called maps, in which local groups of active nerve cells represent grating orientation. Thereby, a particular grating orientation activates different groups of nerve cells resulting in unique patchy patterns. Their specific map layout encodes actual stimulus orientation.

Transfer of motion information through overlaid activity waves
Lead researcher Dr. Dirk Jancke stated that, “Our novel imaging method furthermore captures propagating activity waves across these orientation maps. Hence, we additionally observe gratings moving in real-time across the brain. In this way, motion direction and speed can be estimated independently from orientation maps, which enables resolving ambiguities occurring in visual scenes of everyday life.” The emerging spatial-temporal patterns could then individually be received and interpreted by other brain areas.

The researchers provided an analogy: a radio gets a permanent stream of broadcasts simultaneously. In order to listen to a particular station, one has to choose only the channel to tune. For example, a following brain area might preferentially compute an object’s orientation while others process its movement direction or speed simultaneously.

In the future, the scientists hope to discover more of the brain’s real-time action when similar tools are used with increasing stimulus complexity. And it remains an intriguing question how the brain handles such complex data gaining a stable percept every moment in time. For example, complex naturalistic images are experienced effortlessly in everyday life.

Watch a Video Demonstration
Please visit this website for a video demonstration.

Material adapted from Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum.

Reference / Abstract
Onat S, Nortmann N, Rekauzke S, König P, Jancke D (2011). Independent encoding of grating motion across stationary feature maps in primary visual cortex visualized with voltage-sensitive dye imaging. Neuroimage 55: 1763-1770. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.01.004

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