London: Using a new approach that combines genetics with the physics of light, researchers have observed and measured neuronal transmission in a live animal for the first time.
Studying different neuron types can help scientists understand higher brain functions such as thought, behaviour, language, memory or even mental disorders.
Neurons, the cells of the nervous system, communicate by transmitting chemical signals to each other through junctions called synapses.
This "synaptic transmission" is critical for the brain and the spinal cord, as it helps to process the huge amount of incoming stimuli and generate outgoing signals.
However, studying synaptic transmission in living animals is very difficult, and researchers have to generally use artificial conditions that do not capture the real-life environment of neurons.
In the new study, the researchers used a technique called "optogenetics", that has been making significant inroads in the field of neuroscience in the past ten years.
This method uses light to precisely control the activity of specific neurons in living, even moving, animals in real time.
"This is a proof-of-concept study," said Aurelie Pala from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne in Switzerland.
"Nonetheless, we think that we can use optogenetics to put together a larger picture of connectivity between other types of neurons in other areas of the brain," Pala added.
The study was published in the journal Neuron.