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Volume 23 / No. 1 / 2012
Cornell University
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Ithaca, NY 14853-2801
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Optical Tools for Seeing How Disease Changes The Brain

Chris B. Schaffer, Biomedical Engineering Schaffer
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How do injuries to small blood vessels in the brain contribute to brain disease? Why don’t axons regrow after a spinal cord injury? What is the relationship between impaired brain blood flow and Alzheimer’s disease? To find out, we develop tools and techniques that let us see what is happening to individual cells inside the brain during disease development in animal models.

Injuries to the Head

We have all heard of athletes, particularly hockey and football players, who received numerous head injuries during their careers. These injuries are believed to lead to degenerative brain diseases similar to Alzheimer’s disease. Some of these athletes died at an early age and postmortem diagnoses pointed to vascular injuries as a potential cause of the degeneration. We know that such injuries can cause a range of disorders in the brain, but we do not know how.

The Right Tools

Whether it’s Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, small strokes, brain cancer, or spinal cord injury, dysfunction results from a disturbance at the cellular level inside the central nervous system. To see at this scale inside the brain—actually observe how individual cells are affected, as well as where and when after an injury or in disease development—is very difficult. Yet it is essential to see the cellular behavior in order to comprehend the mechanisms that lead to dysfunction. A major focus in my lab is to understand the cellular-level changes that occur in the central nervous system and lead to these diseases.

Because of the technical challenge of doing such experiments, my lab develops tools and techniques and uses them to answer key scientific questions. We focus about one third of our effort on development of novel techniques and two thirds on answering questions about neurological disease states, often using advanced tools that we develop.

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