Brain scanning techniques, like MRI and PET, have opened new provinces of neuroscience. It’s nearly impossible to read an article about the brain without seeing the familiar heat maps featuring which parts of the brain “light up” during a given task. But there’s a certain fundamental problem with brain scanning. Brain scans are supposed to tell us about how our brain normally behaves–but is there anything normal about lying under a giant machine scanning our brains?
The problem has been present in studies on rats, a species on which much basic brain research is conducted. PET (which stands for postitron emission tomography) has been used for many years on rats, but to use it on them requires general anesthesia or another method of immobilizing them. Once you put a rat to sleep, you’re not exactly seeing it in its natural state, and you’re not going to be able to see how its brain functions out in the real, genuine rat race of the world (or, at least, the rat maze you built in your fluorescently lit underground lab).
But scientists have found what they think is a solution: a miniature, “wearable” PET scanner that is light enough to sit on the rat’s head like a little crown. Scientists from Brookhaven National Laboratory and Stony Brook University made and tested the device, and will report on the results in the April 2011 issue of Nature Methods.
Brookhaven describes the device as a “miniature, portable, donut-shaped PET scanner that can be “worn” like a collar on a rat’s head.” It weighs 250 grams, and has been dubbed the RatCAP (“Rat Conscious Animal PET”). A system of springs and motion stabilizers helps the rat move along naturally, without being too hobbled by the extra half-pound or so of weight atop its head. The researchers even measured the rat’s stress hormones and concluded, in the words of one scientist, that “rats wearing the device appear to adapt well and move freely about their environment.” The initial results proved a little wonky (where the team expected an increase of dopamine, it actually saw a decrease), but nonetheless they clearly correlated to the rat’s behavior. “Regardless of the direction, the results clearly demonstrate that RatCAP can correlate brain function measurements with behavioral measures in a useful way,” said the study’s lead author, Brookhaven’s Daniela Schulz, in a release.
The latest in rat fashion could also be the future of neuroscience, bridging the formerly disparate realms of behavioral (observational) and neurological (scan-dependent) research. Now, records can be made simultaneously on both tracks, and each side of the research will hopefully no longer have to rely on inference and supposition, thanks to the new data enabled by the device.
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