Initially, Daan Brinks performed research at a fundamental level – using photonics to determine whether quantum mechanics plays a role in photosynthesis (it does!). It was a postdoc appointment at Harvard University that inspired him to look beyond the boundaries of his own discipline and to apply his knowledge in the field of neuroscience. Now, as an assistant professor in the Department of Imaging Physics, and closely collaborating with ErasmusMC, he aims to unravel the workings of brain cells at every level – from molecules to entire organisms.
‘There certainly is a lot we don’t yet understand at the very large scale of the universe,’ Brinks says. ‘But right at our doorstep, there is this very important and immensely complex system called the nervous system that is largely undiscovered country. It can have a tremendous impact in our daily lives if we are able to understand it, to manipulate it.’ So, although you may find him wandering narrow trails in the mountains, much more often you will find him at the intersection of physics, photonics, and neuroscience.
We can now make actual movies, rather than graphical simulations, of brain cells firing
It is through electrical potentials that brain cells generate and transfer information, leading to complex patterns of activity in networks of such cells and, ultimately, to certain behaviour. ‘We add genetically encoded proteins to the cell membrane that will fluoresce (emit light) when experiencing an electric potential,’ Brink says. ‘Such voltage imaging is a relatively new but very promising technique. We can now make actual movies, rather than graphical simulations, of brain cells firing.’
The Brinks Lab
He founded the Brinks lab to apply and improve the tools for such imaging, allowing sub-cellular processes to be imaged – and at smaller timescales – as well as allowing the imaging of larger numbers of cells. The lab houses researchers with a background in physics, microbiology, optical engineering, neuroscience, and computer science. ‘Just like I was taught at Harvard, I tell them to look beyond the boundaries of their own discipline,’ Brinks says. ‘That is where we can make a difference.’
By developing new imaging tools, we can start asking scientific questions that used to be unimaginable
A question of tools
In 2018, only a year after coming to Delft, he received an NWO start-up grant to visualise the start of electrical pulses in nanoscopically small parts of the cell. A year later, he was awarded an ERC starting grant for developing a new technique for imaging cells deeper in the brain. And, together with his collaborators at the Brinks lab and at ErasmusMC, he has plenty ideas to further improve voltage imaging. ‘By developing new imaging tools, we can start asking scientific questions that used to be unimaginable,’ he says. ‘And by asking questions that can’t yet be answered we may inspire the development of new tools. The field of neuroscience is a prime example of the synergy between science and engineering.’
All developments at the Brinks lab are directed towards making a difference in diagnosing and curing neurological diseases
Making a difference
It could take a while, but all developments at the Brinks lab are directed towards making a difference in diagnosing and curing neurological diseases. ‘We may, for example, be able to show what part of a brain cell of a patient is dysfunctional when it comes to generating and transmitting electrical signals,’ he says. ‘And then generate a platform for drug-screening and testing various treatments for reversing these effects.’ It may be a steep uphill climb to achieve such medical breakthroughs, but it’s a road Brinks likes to travel.