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Optical Probes for Neurobiological Sensing and Imaging


Fluorescent nanosensors and molecular probes are next-generation tools for imaging chemical signaling inside and between cells. Electrophysiology has long been considered the gold standard in elucidating neural dynamics with high temporal resolution and precision, particularly on the single-cell level. However, electrode-based techniques face challenges in illuminating the specific chemicals involved in neural cell activation with adequate spatial information. Measuring chemical dynamics is of fundamental importance to better understand synergistic interactions between neurons as well as interactions between neurons and non-neuronal cells. Over the past decade, significant technological advances in optical probes and imaging methods have enabled entirely new possibilities for studying neural cells and circuits at the chemical level. These optical imaging modalities have shown promise for combining chemical, temporal, and spatial information. This potential makes them ideal candidates to unravel the complex neural interactions at multiple scales in the brain, which could be complemented by traditional electrophysiological methods to obtain a full spatiotemporal picture of neurochemical dynamics. Despite the potential, only a handful of probe candidates have been utilized to provide detailed chemical information in the brain. To date, most live imaging and chemical mapping studies rely on fluorescent molecular indicators to report intracellular calcium (Ca2+) dynamics, which correlates with neuronal activity. Methodological advances for monitoring a full array of chemicals in the brain with improved spatial, temporal, and chemical resolution will thus enable mapping of neurochemical circuits with finer precision. On the basis of numerous studies in this exciting field, we review the current efforts to develop and apply a palette of optical probes and nanosensors for chemical sensing in the brain. There is a strong impetus to further develop technologies capable of probing entire neurobiological units with high spatiotemporal resolution. Thus, we introduce selected applications for ion and neurotransmitter detection to investigate both neurons and non-neuronal brain cells. We focus on families of optical probes because of their ability to sense a wide array of molecules and convey spatial information with minimal damage to tissue. We start with a discussion of currently available molecular probes, highlight recent advances in genetically modified fluorescent probes for ions and small molecules, and end with the latest research in nanosensors for biological imaging. Customizable, nanoscale optical sensors that accurately and dynamically monitor the local environment with high spatiotemporal resolution could lead to not only new insights into the function of all cell types but also a broader understanding of how diverse neural signaling systems act in conjunction with neighboring cells in a spatially relevant manner.

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