Jasanoff’s lab has previously developed MRI probes that can interact with a variety of molecules in the brain, including dopamine and calcium. When these probes bind to their targets, it affects the sensors’ magnetic interactions with the surrounding tissue, dimming or brightening the MRI signal.
To make a light-sensitive MRI probe, the researchers decided to encase magnetic particles in a nanoparticle called a liposome. The liposomes used in this study are made from specialized light-sensitive lipids that Trauner had previously developed. When these lipids are exposed to a certain wavelength of light, the liposomes become more permeable to water, or “leaky.” This allows the magnetic particles inside to interact with water and generate a signal detectable by MRI.
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The particles, which the researchers called liposomal nanoparticle reporters (LisNR), can switch from permeable to impermeable depending on the type of light they’re exposed to. In this study, the researchers created particles that become leaky when exposed to ultraviolet light, and then become impermeable again when exposed to blue light. The researchers also showed that the particles could respond to other wavelengths of light.
“This paper shows a novel sensor to enable photon detection with MRI through the brain. This illuminating work introduces a new avenue to bridge photon and proton-driven neuroimaging studies,” says Xin Yu, an assistant professor radiology at Harvard Medical School, who was not involved in the study.
The researchers tested the sensors in the brains of rats — specifically, in a part of the brain called the striatum, which is involved in planning movement and responding to reward. After injecting the particles throughout the striatum, the researchers were able to map the distribution of light from an optical fiber implanted nearby.
The fiber they used is similar to those used for optogenetic stimulation, so this kind of sensing could be useful to researchers who perform optogenetic experiments in the brain, Jasanoff says.
“We don’t expect that everybody doing optogenetics will use this for every experiment — it’s more something that you would do once in a while, to see whether a paradigm that you’re using is really producing the profile of light that you think it should be,” Jasanoff says.
In the future, this type of sensor could also be useful for monitoring patients receiving treatments that involve light, such as photodynamic therapy, which uses light from a laser or LED to kill cancer cells.