C2D2 research 2a - Exploring novel multi-modal photonic techniques for live imaging of synaptic activity

Project: Other projectOther internal award

Project Details

Layman's description

The importance of learning and memory in determining who we are is made starkly obvious in patients with late-stage dementia. Developing therapies to treat dementia therefore requires a fundamental understanding of learning at the molecular level. When we learn, information is encoded in our brains by the strengthening of connections (synapses) between brain cells (neurons). The expertise of a neuroscientist and a physicist will be paired to develop a novel method for measuring the activity of synapses in neurons that will facilitate basic research into how synapses change when we learn. A microscope that uses changes in the properties of light to detect the binding of neurotransmitters to specific sensors will be constructed to observe the chemical neurotransmitters that are released by active synapses during the course of learning. This novel technique will reveal how networks of synapses behave and so help to elucidate the molecular processes of learning, and how these processes go wrong in dementia.

Key findings

The major aims of the project were:
1. Construct a microscope that can simultaneously image a) fluorescence and b) neurotransmitter secretion and changes in synaptic plasticity via refractive index in live cells.
2. Optimise the functionalization of photonic crystals with antibodies to detect secretion from cells.
3. Measure endogenous glutamate release from cultured neurons during stimuli that mimic learning.

Excellent progress has been made in aim 1, where we have designed and constructed a novel microscope that can visualise cellular fluorescence and detect cell features due to fluctuations in refractive index (see attached document outlining preliminary data).

To address aims 2 and 3, considerable effort has been spent i) optimising the design and fabrication of silicon crystals that resonate and can detecting changes in refractive index and ii) optimising the culture of neuronal cells on photonic crystals. Issues with the fabrication process and cell culture media degrading the crystal have slowed progress.  However, we have recently fabricated resonant crystals that can detect cultured cells.  Using a simpler 'ring' resonator, we have also successfully detected antibody-antigen interactions on a crystal surface.

Thus the components of the proposed system to measure neurotransmitter release have been developed independently and through our joint PhD student, collaborative work between our labs will continue to combine these technologies to image neurotransmission and synaptic plasticity label-free and in real time.

The Krauss-Evans collaboration was further strengthened by Evans becoming a joint supervisor of Graham Triggs, an EPSRC PhD student whose project focuses on biosensor development.  This C2D2 project stimulated further discussions between the Krauss lab and other biologists to develop specific biosensors.  A collaboration was hence formed between the Krauss lab and Mark Coles (HYMS, CII) for detecting chemokines.   Krauss, Evans and Coles and Steve Johnston (Electronics) also submitted an application for further C2D2 funding for a discipline-hopping intern to develop novel biosensors.

Matthias Fischer was recruited in June 2013 to work on the project (focusing on the development of the fluorescence/resonance microscope) and has now been employed on a 3 yr contract in the Krauss lab.
A PhD student,  Graham Triggs (2012-2015, jointly supervised by Krauss and Evans), contributed to the project by developing the photonic crystal technology.


The biosensors we have designed could be amenable to commercialisation but have not yet reached a sufficiently advanced stage of development.

Further funding to study mechanisms of synaptic plasticity will be sought by Evans and Krauss once more robust preliminary data in neurons has been obtained.

On the basis of the biosensor development conducted in our project, Krauss, Coles and Johnson submitted a successful application for a Tools and Resources grant from the BBSRC.
Label-free, Real-time, Spatial-resolution (LRS) immunoassay: 2D mapping of extracellular signalling molecules
PI T. Krauss, Co-I Steve Johnson, Mark Coles
BBSRC Tools and Resources Development Fund (BB/L018160/1)
01/04/2014 - 01/08/2016

Two articles are planned in the short term:
i) A photonics study demonstrating how the grating configuration of silicon crystals determines the resolution of detection.
ii) A microscopy study showing the first demonstration of simultaneous fluorescence and resonance measurements from cells.

Effective start/end date1/02/1331/01/14