Snapshots of Life: Making the Brain Transparent

Brain webs

Credit: Ken Chan and Viviana Gradinaru Group, Caltech

What you are looking at above is something scientists couldn’t even dream of imaging less than a decade ago: bundles of neurons in the brainstem of an adult mouse. These bundles are randomly labeled with various colors that enable researchers to trace the course of each as it projects from the brainstem areas to other parts of the brain. Until recently, such a view would have been impossible because, like other organs, the brain is opaque and had to be sliced into thin, transparent sections of tissue to be examined under a light microscope. These sections forced a complex 3D structure to be visualized in 2D, losing critical detail about the connections.

But now, researchers have developed innovative approaches to make organs and other large volumes of tissue transparent when viewed with standard light microscopy [1]. This particular image was made using the Passive CLARITY Technique, or PACT, developed by the NIH-supported lab of Viviana Gradinaru at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena. Gradinaru has been working on turning tissues transparent since 2010, starting as a graduate student in the lab of CLARITY developer and bioengineering pioneer Karl Deisseroth at Stanford University. PACT is her latest refinement of the concept.

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The Brain: Now You See It, Soon You Won’t

A post mortem brain is a white, fatty, opaque, three-pound mass. Traditionally scientists have looked inside it by cutting the brain into thin slices, but the relationships and connections of the tens of billions of neurons are then almost impossible to reconstruct.   What if we could strip away the fat and study the details of the wiring and the location of specific proteins, in three dimensions? An NIH funded team at Stanford University has done just that, developing a breakthrough method for unmasking the brain.

Using a chemical cocktail, they infuse the brain with a hydrogel that locks in the brain’s form and structure in a type of matrix. Then the fatty layer that coats each nerve cell is stripped away, leaving a transparent brain (check out the transparent mouse brain below). The hydrogel prevents the brain from disintegrating into a puddle once the fat is gone.

Photo on the left shows an opaque mouse brain. Photo on the right (after CLARITY) shows a nearly transparent mouse brain.

Caption: CLARITY transforms a mouse brain at left into a transparent but still intact brain at right. Shown superimposed over a quote from the great Spanish neuroanatomist Ramon y Cajal.
Credit: Kwanghun Chung and Karl Deisseroth, Howard Hughes Medical Institute/Stanford University

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