New scope to observe critical living tissues

University of Otago Research Fellow Dr Karl Iremonger and Associate Prof Ruth Empson, both of the Otago physiology department, with a new multiphoton microscope. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
University of Otago Research Fellow Dr Karl Iremonger and Associate Prof Ruth Empson, both of the Otago physiology department, with a new multiphoton microscope. Photo by Peter McIntosh.

A revolutionary new $1 million microscope will allow University of Otago medical scientists to peer into living brain cells for the first time, and to study the development of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's.

The university's newly-acquired ''multiphoton microscope'' applies a powerful but harmless infra-red light that ''sees into living organs and cells with unparalleled detail and speed'', officials said.

The microscope is the first of its kind in New Zealand and one of only a handful in the world.

It was bought with funding from New Zealand Lottery Health and several internal Otago University sources.

Associate Prof Ruth Empson, who chaired an informal group which co-ordinated efforts to obtain the microscope, and Prof Richard Blaikie, the Otago deputy vice-chancellor, research and enterprise, yesterday spoke at a function to ''open'' the microscope.

The physiology department had driven this initiative and physiology was the scientific discipline that sought to understand ''how living things work'', Prof Empson said.

Understanding how they worked was ''critical for fixing them'' and the knowledge, developed with the microscope, would ''help answer important questions in human health and diseases including stroke, arrhythmia, wound healing and irritable bowel disease,''she said.

Prof Empson, and fellow physiology researchers Dr Karl Iremonger and Dr Peter Jones, were among those who worked to acquire the microscope.

Prof Blaikie said the launch of the microscope highlighted the university's commitment to investing in state-of-the-art scientific equipment to enhance the world-leading research.

This ''powerful new tool'', housed at the Otago Centre for Confocal Microscopy, would allow researchers to ''look at the microscopic intricacies of living systems in literally a brand new light'', he said.

The microscope would be used to image a wide variety of living tissues and animal organs including the brain, skin, lungs, gut and lymph nodes.

Prof Empson, who is also a member of the university's Brain Health Research Centre, said it was ''incredibly exciting'' that the microscope had now arrived, and new insights would result.

Being able to see deep into a ''previously impenetrable structure like the brain'', and measure its electrical activity, would ''revolutionise our understanding of how complex networks of brain cells'' used electrical impulses to communicate with each other, she said.