Australian engineers have built an advanced microscope that can film neurons firing in living animals.

Dr Steve Lee, a biomedical optics engineer, says the invention is much more powerful than current similar microscopes.

 “Scientists can use our new microscope to analyse complex medical problems ranging from blood disorders and cancer to neurological disorders,” said Dr Lee.

“The microscope can speed up or slow down to capture the slow moving cells in a blood stream or live neurons firing rapidly in the brain, making it much more flexible than other microscopes on the market.”

The advanced microscope uses the same approach as barcode laser scanners.

In barcode scanners, a laser beam bounces off a spinning polygon mirror, allowing it to scan across a sample very quickly.

A barcode scanner registers a sequence of patterns to identify a product. A polygon mirror usually has around 10 mirror facets.

The new microscope uses a more powerful laser beam as the light source and up to 36 mirror facets to scan the laser beam across the biological sample in a few thousandths of a second.

“We achieve the same imaging resolution of conventional scanning microscopes on the market but at double the speed,” he said.

“The innovation here is that we modernised the polygon mirror microscopy system with advanced electronics and software controls to enable real-time imaging applications, with up to 800 frames per second.”

The research is published in the Journal of Biophotonics.

Lead author Yongxiao Li, said customised open-source software made the microscope a flexible imaging tool.

“We built this very sophisticated microscope over about one year in collaboration with leading experts here in Australia and in the United States,” Mr Li said.

More details are available in the video below.