Using Quantum Defects in Diamond to Sense the Magnetic Fields of Firing Neurons

November 30, 2016

Magnetic fields from neuronal action potentials (APs) pass largely unperturbed through biological tissue, allowing magnetic measurements of AP dynamics to be performed extracellularly or even outside intact organisms. To date, however, magnetic techniques for sensing neuronal activity have either operated at the macroscale with coarse spatial and/or temporal resolution - e.g., magnetic resonance imaging methods and magnetoencephalography - or been restricted to biophysics studies of excised neurons probed with cryogenic or bulky detectors that do not provide single-neuron spatial resolution and are not scalable to functional networks or intact organisms.

In a new article in PNAS, researchers in Ronald Walsworth's Lab, together with Profs. Prk and Lukin, report that AP magnetic sensing can be realized with both single-neuron sensitivity and intact organism applicability using optically probed nitrogen-vacancy (NV) quantum defects in diamond, operated under ambient conditions and with the NV diamond sensor in close proximity (∼10 µm) to the biological sample. The authors demonstrate this method for excised single neurons from marine worm and squid, and then exterior to intact, optically opaque marine worms for extended periods and with no observed adverse effect on the animal. NV diamond magnetometry is noninvasive and label-free and does not cause photodamage. The method provides precise measurement of AP waveforms from individual neurons, as well as magnetic field correlates of the AP conduction velocity, and directly determines the AP propagation direction through the inherent sensitivity of NVs to the associated AP magnetic field vector.

See John F. Barry, Matthew J. Turner, Jennifer M. Schloss, David R. Glenn, Yuyu Song, Mikhail D. Lukin, Hongkun Park, and Ronald L. Walsworth, "Optical magnetic detection of single-neuron action potentials using quantum defects in diamond," PNAS 2016 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1601513113.