Studying movement without moving: Optical physics and neuroscience research wins Eureka prize

Working between optical physics and neuroscience has brought positive results for a team of University of Queensland researchers.

The team consists of researchers from UQ’s School of Biological Science, the School of Mathematics and Physics, and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems.

Working with zebrafish, they used a new technique to study the cells and circuits in the brain that are responsible for motion processing for the first time.

Associate Professor Ethan Scott said that the project used the physics of optical trapping to use a laser to move the ear stones of a zebrafish.

Associate Professor Scott said, “We're interested in how the brain processes movement, but it's difficult to study activity in a moving brain,” he said.

“In our interdisciplinary project, using the physics technique of optical trapping, we've used a laser to move the ear stones in zebrafish model, producing a sensation of movement and eliciting behavioural adjustments, all without moving the animal.

“By tricking an animal into thinking it's moving while the brain remains stationary, we can now use advanced microscopy to study the cells and circuits across the brain responsible for motion processing for the first time.”

For this project, the researchers were awarded the UNSW Eureka Prize for Interdisciplinary Research at the “Oscars of Australian science” last night.

Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop said that without the use of laser micromanipulation it would have been impossible to  the “trick” the fish into thinking it was moving.

Professor Rubinsztein-Dunlop added, “The use of the laser beam to exert well-calibrated forces on the vestibular system allowed observations of reactions to gravity and motion in the brain in an unprecedented way.”

“The combination of laser physics and neurosciences in this project helped us achieve new and very exciting results in well-controlled biological system.”

The Optical Physics in Neuroscience team members are Associate Professor Ethan Scott (School of Biomedical Sciences), Professor Halina Rubinsztein-Dunlop (EQUS and UQ's School of Mathematics and Physics and Dr Itia Favre-Bulle (UQ’s School of Mathematics and Physics).

Major funding support

Australian Research Council

The Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQUS) acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respects to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present.