Optical Strategies for Sensing Neuronal Voltage Using Quantum Dots and Other Semiconductor Nanocrystals

2013-05-28T00:00:00Z (GMT) by Jesse D. Marshall Mark J. Schnitzer
Biophysicists have long sought optical methods capable of reporting the electrophysiological dynamics of large-scale neural networks with millisecond-scale temporal resolution. Existing fluorescent sensors of cell membrane voltage can report action potentials in individual cultured neurons, but limitations in brightness and dynamic range of both synthetic organic and genetically encoded voltage sensors have prevented concurrent monitoring of spiking activity across large populations of individual neurons. Here we propose a novel, inorganic class of fluorescent voltage sensors: semiconductor nanoparticles, such as ultrabright quantum dots (qdots). Our calculations revealed that transmembrane electric fields characteristic of neuronal spiking (∼10 mV/nm) modulate a qdot’s electronic structure and can induce ∼5% changes in its fluorescence intensity and ∼1 nm shifts in its emission wavelength, depending on the qdot’s size, composition, and dielectric environment. Moreover, tailored qdot sensors composed of two different materials can exhibit substantial (∼30%) changes in fluorescence intensity during neuronal spiking. Using signal detection theory, we show that conventional qdots should be capable of reporting voltage dynamics with millisecond precision across several tens or more individual neurons over a range of optical and neurophysiological conditions. These results unveil promising avenues for imaging spiking dynamics in neural networks and merit in-depth experimental investigation.