An innovative technique James Higbie developed in collaboration with colleagues to study neurons could provide new insights.

James Higbie, an assistant professor of physics, measures magnetic fields from tiny objects very precisely.

"You could call it magnetic microscopy, trying to image the magnetic structures of things on a very short scale," Higbie said.

The technique, which he developed in collaboration with colleagues at the University of California-Berkeley, involves exposing a very cold gas to a magnetic field of interest. Because Higbie uses a gas made up of atoms with one unpaired electron – elements like rubidium or sodium – the magnetic field torques each atom's electron spin. Measuring the atoms' states after exposure reveals a spatial map of the magnetic field produced by the sample.

Higbie plans to use the technique to study neurons, among other things. Currently, techniques such as microelectrodes and voltage-sensitive dyes are used to study nerve cell activity. Higbie's technique could provide new insights.

"Neurons have electrical currents running around in them. Like anything else that has an electrical current, they will produce a magnetic field," he said. "When you have a new way of looking at these things, there's often some new or unexpected understanding that comes out of it."

Higbie is also interested in using his technique to study the physics of novel, ultra-cold gases that were discovered in 1995, known as Bose condensates.

Posted Sept. 22, 2008

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