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Detecting dangerous chemicals with lasers, exploring the brain's circuitry with light and more
Date:4/22/2008

e of background electrical activity in the brain. A number of alternative approaches use optical probes that can detect neuronal activity with light, but these methods often require labeling neural cells with electrically-sensitive dyes that may be toxic to neurons.

Now Jiayi Zhang, Tolga Atay, and Arto Nurmikko at Brown University have created a new type of dye-free optical probe that can directly sense naturally occurring neural activity. They have imbedded gold nanoparticles into tissue culture and shown that they can measure the electrical activity of live neurons. The technique takes advantage of a phenomenon known as surface plasmon polariton resonance, a sharp spectroscopic resonance at visible/near-infrared wavelengths. Basically, the gold nanoparticles are used to optically sense the local electric fields produced when nearby neurons fire. The neuronal activity modulates the electron density at the surface of the nanoparticle, which causes an observable spectral shift that the researchers can monitor. (Talk CWM3, "Detection of Neural Cell Activity Using Plasmonic Gold Nanoparticles.")


TINY LASER ARRAYS FOR SENSITIVE CHEMICAL DETECTION

Early miners used to carry canaries into coal mines because the birds were sensitive to certain gasses. Modern chemical analysis does the same thing, though much more powerfully. For instance, infrared spectroscopy can detect even trace amounts of a wide range of chemicals, including toxic components of hazardous waste or chemical weapons, because many chemicals absorb light in the mid-infrared band.

Now Federico Capasso and his colleagues at Harvard University are developing a new type of infrared spectrometer that could be just as powerful as these bulky instruments yet fit inside a shoe box. Instead of using thermal sources for infrared rays, a team lead by Capasso, his student Benjamin G. Lee, and his postdoctoral fellow Mikhail A. Belkin, has built one of these in
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Contact: Colleen Morrison
cmorri@osa.org
202-416-1437
Optical Society of America
Source:Eurekalert

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