While many people love colorful photos of landscapes, flowers or rainbows, some biomedical researchers treasure vivid images on a much smaller scale – as tiny as one-thousandth the width of a human hair.
To study the micro world and help advance medical knowledge and treatments, these scientists use fluorescent nano-sized particles.
Quantum dots are one type of nanoparticle, more commonly known for their use in TV screens. They’re super tiny crystals that can transport electrons. When UV light hits these semiconducting particles, they can emit light of various colors.
That fluorescence allows scientists to use them to study hidden or otherwise cryptic parts of cells, organs and other structures.
I’m part of a group of nanotechnology and neuroscience researchers at the University of Washington investigating how quantum dots behave in the brain (Nanoscale Advances, “Quantum dot cellular uptake and toxicity in the developing brain: implications for use as imaging probes”).
Common brain diseases are estimated to cost the U.S. nearly US$800 billion annually. These diseases – including Alzheimer’s disease and neurodevelopmental disorders – are hard to diagnose or treat.
Nanoscale tools, such as quantum dots, that can capture the nuance in complicated cell activities hold promise as brain-imaging tools or drug delivery carriers for the brain. But because there are many reasons to be concerned about their use in medicine, mainly related to health and safety, it’s important to figure out more about how they work in biological systems.

Image Credit:  Rebusy/Shutterstock.com

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