This is your brain on diapers: new mindbogglingly cool imaging trick

Expansion microscopy brain
Swollen brain cells – Scientists modified the superabsorbant diaper compound, polyacrylate, to magnify brain tissue. Courtesy of Boyden lab, MIT, Cambridge, MA. NIH

In what NIH describes as “outside-the-box” thinking, an MIT team led by Edward Boyden has found a way to use a diaper ingredient to transform microscopy including brain imaging.

This is cool stuff.

Boyden’s group found that the super-absorbent diaper compound sodium polyacrylate, can be used in a very novel way for microscopy.

For any who have ever wished for a more powerful microscope (and isn’t that everyone?), Boyden’s team thought of something pretty revolutionary. Instead of pushing the microscope beyond the limits of optical physics, Boyden uses the diaper compound to make his samples bigger and hence they looked bigger under the scope under the same magnification. You can see a lot more.

I wish I had thought of that.

Even with the almost 5-fold acrylate-based expansion the tissues retained its general structure, but was just far easier to see.

NIH quoted Boyden:

“Our results show that we can scan large chunks of brain tissue with nanoscale precision. We think this can be applied to a variety of tissues and help answer a lot of different questions in science and medicine,” said Dr. Boyden.

In the future, Dr. Boyden and his team plan to test ways to combine the technique with other visualization methods and use it to study diseases in human brain tissue.

You can see an example of swollen brain cells imaged by the team above from the NIH website. Also from the NIH piece:

“Expansion microscopy is a potential game changer,” said Walter Koroshetz, M.D., acting director of NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “This is the kind of outside- the-box technical innovation that expands the capability of microscopes widely used in the scientific community to explore the fine structure of the nervous system in health and disease.”

All those years changing my kids’ diapers, then going off to look at samples on scopes, and this never occurred to me.

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