Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

$1m window into human body

Microscope that looks into living cells hailed as opening a new era in NZ medical research.

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Amillion-dollar microscope has allowed Kiwi scientists an unparalleled window into the human body, shining a new light on everything from Parkinson's to irregular heartbeats.

The multiphoton microscope, the first of its kind in the country, will usher in a new era of New Zealand microscopy research when it officially begins service today at the University of Otago.

Until now, scientists investigating the onset of various conditions have been unable to peer into living cells to find out what has been making them malfunction, and have instead had to search for clues in dead cells made static again.

By pulsing a long wavelength of infra-red light into the body, the microscope excites molecules within a piece of tissue, and the light given off by them allows scientists to visualise the processes at play.

Associate Professor Ruth Empson, of the university's department of physiology and Brain Health Research Centre, told the Herald the microscope would "revolutionise" research in New Zealand.

Having the ability to see deep into a previously impenetrable structure like the brain, and measure its electrical activity, would boost our understanding of how complex networks of brain cells use electrical impulses to communicate with one another.

"We will be able to see how these impulses change or malfunction in response to a brain trauma such as a stroke, or diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's," she said.

"We will also be able to visualise changes in brain structure during development, across puberty, right through to old age."

Directed elsewhere in the body, the microscope could visualise how dysfunctions of the heart create cardiac arrhythmias, how cells contribute to wound-healing processes, or how bacteria enter cells to create infections.

While the researchers were learning more about the microscope's power, a new study had already been built around the first images it produced.

"We've taken images to look at the neurons that are important for driving movement and how they function, which are increasingly important for disorders like Parkinson's disease and perhaps less known movement disorders like ataxia. We'd love to be able to see the signals in the brain that are driving the movements that are being made."

The device would be used solely for research purposes, but clinicians around the country would be able to access it, Professor Empson said.

Neurological Foundation executive director Max Ritchie also welcomed the new device.

- NZ Herald

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