Unravelling the pathophysiology of depression is a unique challenge. Depression is closely associated with reduced norepinephrine (NE) levels; therefore, developing bioimaging probes to visualize NE levels in the brain is a key to elucidating the pathophysiological process of depression. However, because NE is similar in structure and chemical properties to two other catecholamine neurotransmitters, epinephrine and dopamine, designing an NE-specific multimodal bioimaging probe is a difficult task. In this work, we designed and synthesized the first near-infrared fluorescent-photoacoustic (PA) dual-modality imaging probe for NE (FPNE). The β-hydroxyethylamine of NE was shown to react via nucleophilic substitution and intramolecular nucleophilic cyclization, resulting in the cleavage of a carbonic ester bond in the probe molecule and release of a merocyanine molecule (IR-720). This process changed the color of the reaction solution from blue-purple to green, and the absorption peak was red-shifted from 585 to 720 nm. Under light excitation at 720 nm, linear relationships between the concentration of NE and both the PA response and the fluorescence signal intensity were observed. Thus, the use of intracerebral in situ visualization for diagnosis of depression and monitoring of drug interventions was achieved in a mouse model by fluorescence and PA imaging of brain regions after administration of FPNE by tail-vein injection.

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