More than one billion people worldwide suffer from diseases of the central nervous system, such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease. To better understand neurological disorders and to develop targeted therapies, researchers need to look deep into the neuronal control center to expand their knowledge of the structure, the interplay, and the interactions of nerve cells. Leibniz-IPHT was now able to secure a grant from the European Research Council (ERC) for the further development of precise neuroscientific instruments.

High-resolution images from inside the central nervous system can provide valuable information on how diseases arise, how they will develop as well as how treatment concepts will work. As the tissue in the brain is extremely sensitive, neurological examinations with conventional endoscopes are very complex. Minimally invasive endoscope concepts for observing neuronal structures are needed to avoid injuring surrounding brain areas and risking damage to nerve cells.

Leibniz-IPHT paved the way for future modern neuroscience keyhole diagnostics with the development of a hair-thin endoscopy probe thinner than a human hair. It enables uniquely detailed observations of neuronal cells at an unprecedented level of detail. This is made possible by an extremely thin and flexible optical fiber that serves as an imaging instrument and was developed at the institute in Jena as part of the ERC-funded research project LIFEGATE (holographic super-resolution micro-endoscopy for in-vivo applications).

Precisely visualize and monitor brain structures

With the financial support now received from the ERC, these results can be further developed and brought to a promising level of maturity that will bring the technology into application.

“The ERC research grant allows us to explore deep neuronal structures, to monitor them visually, to observe them, but also to control their activity. For this purpose, we will further develop existing endoscopy solutions and test them in practical applications in order to advance the commercial implementation of such powerful scientific instruments for brain diagnostics “, explains Tomáš Čižmár, Head of the Working Group Holographic Endoscopy and Head of Fiber Research and Technology Department at Leibniz-IPHT.

The WOKEGATE project to launch in 2022 will continue the work from the previous ERC-funded project LIFEGATE. With the development of a novel ultrathin endoscopic fiber design, which will reduce tissue damages to a minimum, high-resolution in vivo imaging of deep brain regions, such as those for sensory perception or memory performance, should be further improved. Activities of individual neurons in brain structures can thus be localized, observed, and stimulated. In the future, physicians will also be better supported in the placement of brain stimulation implants through optimized imaging.

“Diseases such as Alzheimer are steadily increasing in our today´s society. Finding effective ways of stopping this disease, and perhaps even defeating it, requires an extremely precise understanding of the processes that take place in our nerve cells. It is our daily motivation to lay the foundations today with our research work, to contribute to helping people in the future. The ERC grant is a recognition and further motivation at the same time”, explains Tomáš Čižmár.

ERC grant

As part of the EU research and innovation program Horizon Europe, ERC funds with a total of 25 million Euro frontier research and excellent scientific projects with high social relevance. ERC was initiated in 2007 by the European Union and has become a globally visible European funding program for cutting-edge research.

In the 2021 tendering round, 166 researchers now received funding of 150,000 euro each, with which pioneering research approaches are to be transferred to the early phase of commercialization. The EU program exclusively supports researchers and their projects, who already received a grant by the ERC program initiative. The knowledge gained is to be further developed and deepened in a second funding phase.

Press Release of the European Research Council, February 7, 2022 >>