A tiny wearable scanner has been used to track chemical activity in the brains of unrestrained animals for the first time. By revealing neurological circuitry as the subjects perform normal tasks, researchers say, the technology could greatly broaden the understanding of learning, addiction, depression, and other conditions.
The device was designed to be used with rats—the main animal model used by behavioral neuroscientists. But the researchers who developed the device, at Brookhaven National Laboratory, say it would be straightforward to engineer a similar device for people.
Positron emission tomography, or PET, is already broadly used in neuroscience research and in clinical treatment. It allows researchers to track the location of radioactively labeled neurotransmitters (the chemicals that carry signals between neurons) or drugs within the brain. Images of the way neurotransmitters and drugs move through the brain can reveal the processes that underpin normal behavior such as learning as well as pathologies including addiction. PET has been used to map drug-binding sites in the brains of addicts and healthy people, and to study how those sites change over time and with therapy.
A conventional PET scanner is so large that these studies have to be performed with the subject lying inside a large tube. Large photomultiplier tubes amplify signals from gamma rays emitted by labeled chemicals in the brain. The signals then pass through a desk-sized rack of electronics that process them and map them to a particular region of the brain. To get good readings during animal studies, the subjects are typically anaesthetized or restrained. What's being measured is not normal waking behavior.