Making brain transparent opens new research path

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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Stanford University researchers have turned a dreary gray brain into an object as transparent as apricot Jell-O -- an approach that will reveal new secrets into the most mysterious of organs.

The process, called CLARITY, transforms the brain's tissue -- replacing opaque fat with a clear gel -- and creates a limpid organ with all of its essential circuitry intact and in place.

"Brain tissue is very dense," said researcher Kwanghun Chung. "We have developed a technique that makes tissue transparent, ... so we can visualize the architecture, necessary to understand the function of the complex organ."

The technique ushers in a new era of whole-organ imaging, offering hope for improving the study of such devastating neurological disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.

It was conceived by a team led by bioengineer and psychiatrist Karl Deisseroth, one of 15 experts on the "dream team" that will map out the goals for the $100 million brain research initiative announced April 2 by President Barack Obama.

"This feat of chemical engineering promises to transform the way we study the brain's anatomy and how disease changes it," Thomas Insel, the National Institute of Mental Health director, said.

The technique, described in today's online issue of the journal Nature, was successful in showing the neural structures in a piece of the brain of an autistic 7-year-old boy.

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