The primary way we understand how the brain works is by looking at the electrical activity of the neurons in the brain. This is how neurons “talk” to one another.
“Currently, the available set of probes and materials for monitoring brain activity have limitations such as limited light output or they are inherently toxic,” said Dr. Igor Medintz, the Navy’s Senior Scientist for Biosensors and Biomaterials at NRL.
According to Medintz, developing new materials to look at this communication has been one avenue to address this problem.
“You need a material that can do two things,” Delehanty added. “The material needs to engage that electrical process [in the brain] and give you some type of output that you can see optically through a microscope.”
The team at NRL knew that quantum dots would be an excellent candidate for this application due to their ability to give off light, something you can see, in conjunction with their sensitivity to respond to the electrical signals routing through the brain. QDs are very much like “artificial atoms,” having unique properties that can be engineered for specific applications such as the color of the emitted light, by controlling the QD’s size, and the sensitivity to electric or magnetic fields by controlling structure and composition.
“Quantum dots have a lot of advantages,” said Delehanty. “They’re much brighter, they’re much more stable, and they can be designed to engage the electrical process appropriately.”