Hi-tech future in reading tea leaves

November 24, 1995

State-of-the-art imaging techniques that can watch lesions form in heart disease and pinpoint where aluminium sits in tea leaves have come together in a single centre at Cambridge University, which officially opens today.

The centre is the result of a pooling of the resources of some Cambridge departments and a Pounds 720,000 grant from the Wellcome Trust.

Techniques include digital scanning electron microscopy and confocal microscopy. When a transparent object is put into a confocal microscope, it can take a picture of any layer the scientist wants to see within the object. By snapping a series of layers at two micrometre intervals, scientists can build up a three-dimensional picture of the object and explore it on a computer.

Patrick Echlin, director of the Centre, said "This is as close as we can get to looking at living things."

One study could add a small piece to the jigsaw of Alzheimer's disease. Sufferers were shown some years ago to have aluminium deposits in the brain, although researchers are far from showing a causal link between ingesting aluminium and developing Alzheimer's disease.

"We know there is aluminium in tea and there is more in older leaves than younger leaves," said Dr Echlin. "Good tea is made from young leaves." Low-temperature techniques will enable Dr Echlin to pinpoint exactly where in the leaf the aluminium is.

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