Quantum Dots Can Get Nearby Neurons Firing

By Sarah Zhang | February 16, 2012 8:54 am

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The quantum dot has many super powers. It can capture light energy for solar panels, team up with LEDs to emit entangled photons, and according to new research, activate neurons in a Petri dish. Quantum dots are tiny bits of semiconductor material, and their unique properties coming from being so small—no more than 10 nanometers across—that they’re governed by weird rules of the quantum world. Quantum dots are already used in biology to label individual cells or proteins. But now, quantum dots are no longer just labels; they can change how neurons behave.

When a light shines on them, quantum dots generate a small electric field that causes the ion channels of a nearby neuron to open, activating it. What’s exciting about quantum dots versus, say, electrodes, which are used in therapies like deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s, is that it may be possible to get them in there without cracking the skull open: The researchers suggest quantum dots can be put in place by tagging them to proteins that target specific neurons in the brain. However—and this is where the caveats begin—proteins have a tough time crossing the blood-brain barrier, so they’d have to be injected directly into the cerebrospinal fluid. Then, of course, there’s the problem of how to get light into the brain.

Actual use of quantum dots in humans for treatment is still a long way off—but it’s exciting that they can jump-start neurons just by hanging around nearby.

[via New Scientist]

Image courtesy of Jiang et al, Chemistry of Materials

  • Aiden

    Hmm, very interesting. How does the blood brain barrier work? Could use some kind of sedative to stop it functioning? Does it have to be visible light? Who knows, maybe you could use another type of electro-magnetic wavelength..

  • Mephane

    Then, of course, there’s the problem of how to get light into the brain.

    Pardon if this assumption is based only on insufficient knowledge about quantum dots – but what says that all types of quantum dots would only ever react to visible light. Perhaps they could engineer a type that reacts, say, to x-ray radiation, or any other wavelength that is able to penetrate live tissue.

  • Craig

    i like where Mephane is going with that proposition!

  • Austin

    If you put QD with tiny particle of TOURMALINE that’s a power station right there. Tourmaline activates from the body’s infrared heat and emits a foton. The QD receives the foton and transforms into an electron

  • jarrod

    what if we quantum entangle it with ones outside the body, and then shine light onto those on the outside?


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