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The Amazing Brain: Shining a Spotlight on Individual Neurons

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A major aim of the NIH-led Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative is to develop new technologies that allow us to look at the brain in many different ways on many different scales. So, I’m especially pleased to highlight this winner of the initiative’s recent “Show Us Your Brain!” contest.

Here you get a close-up look at pyramidal neurons located in the hippocampus, a region of the mammalian brain involved in memory. While this tiny sample of mouse brain is densely packed with many pyramidal neurons, researchers used new ExLLSM technology to zero in on just three. This super-resolution, 3D view reveals the intricacies of each cell’s structure and branching patterns.

The group that created this award-winning visual includes the labs of X. William Yang at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Kwanghun Chung at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. Chung’s team also produced another quite different “Show Us Your Brain!” winner, a colorful video featuring hundreds of neural cells and connections in a part of the brain essential to movement.

Pyramidal neurons in the hippocampus come in many different varieties. Some important differences in their functional roles may be related to differences in their physical shapes, in ways that aren’t yet well understood. So, BRAIN-supported researchers are now applying a variety of new tools and approaches in a more detailed effort to identify and characterize these neurons and their subtypes.

The video featured here took advantage of Chung’s new method for preserving brain tissue samples [1]. Another secret to its powerful imagery was a novel suite of mouse models developed in the Yang lab. With some sophisticated genetics, these models make it possible to label, at random, just 1 to 5 percent of a given neuronal cell type, illuminating their full morphology in the brain [2]. The result was this unprecedented view of three pyramidal neurons in exquisite 3D detail.

Ultimately, the goal of these and other BRAIN Initiative researchers is to produce a dynamic picture of the brain that, for the first time, shows how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space. I look forward to their continued progress, which promises to revolutionize our understanding of how the human brain functions in both health and disease.

References:

[1] Protection of tissue physicochemical properties using polyfunctional crosslinkers. Park YG, Sohn CH, Chen R, McCue M, Yun DH, Drummond GT, Ku T, Evans NB, Oak HC, Trieu W, Choi H, Jin X, Lilascharoen V, Wang J, Truttmann MC, Qi HW, Ploegh HL, Golub TR, Chen SC, Frosch MP, Kulik HJ, Lim BK, Chung K. Nat Biotechnol. 2018 Dec 17.

[2] Genetically-directed Sparse Neuronal Labeling in BAC Transgenic Mice through Mononucleotide Repeat Frameshift. Lu XH, Yang XW. Sci Rep. 2017 Mar 8;7:43915.

Links:

Chung Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)

Yang Lab (University of California, Los Angeles)

Show Us Your Brain! (BRAIN Initiative/NIH)

Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering


Singing for the Fences

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Credit: NIH

I’ve sung thousands of songs in my life, mostly in the forgiving company of family and friends. But, until a few years ago, I’d never dreamed that I would have the opportunity to do a solo performance of the Star-Spangled Banner in a major league ballpark.

When I first learned that the Washington Nationals had selected me to sing the national anthem before a home game with the New York Mets on May 24, 2016, I was thrilled. But then another response emerged: yes, that would be called fear. Not only would I be singing before my biggest audience ever, I would be taking on a song that’s extremely challenging for even the most accomplished performer.

The musician in me was particularly concerned about landing the anthem’s tricky high F note on “land of the free” without screeching or going flat. So, I tracked down a voice teacher who gave me a crash course about how to breathe properly, how to project, how to stay on pitch on a high note, and how to hit the national anthem out of the park. She suggested that a good way to train is to sing the entire song with each syllable replaced by “meow.” It sounds ridiculous, but it helped—try it sometime. And then I practiced, practiced, practiced. I think the preparation paid off, but watch the video to decide for yourself!

Three years later, the scientist in me remains fascinated by what goes on in the human brain when we listen to or perform music. The NIH has even partnered with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to launch the Sound Health initiative to explore the role of music in health. A great many questions remain to be answered. For example, what is it that makes us enjoy singers who stay on pitch and cringe when we hear someone go sharp or flat? Why do some intervals sound pleasant and others sound grating? And, to push that line of inquiry even further, why do we tune into the pitch of people’s voices when they are speaking to help figure out if they are happy, sad, angry, and so on?

To understand more about the neuroscience of pitch, a research team, led by Bevil Conway of NIH’s National Eye Institute, used functional MRI imaging to study activity in the region of the brain involved in processing sound (the auditory cortex), both in humans and in our evolutionary relative, the macaque monkey [1]. For purposes of the study, published recently in Nature Neuroscience, pitch was defined as the harmonic sounds that we hear when listening to music.

For humans and macaques, their auditory cortices lit up comparably in response to low- and high-frequency sound. But only humans responded selectively to harmonic tones, while the macaques reacted to toneless, white noise sounds spanning the same frequency range. Based on what they found in both humans and monkeys, the researchers suspect that macaques experience music and other sounds differently than humans. They also go on to suggest that the perception of pitch must have provided some kind of evolutionary advantage for our ancestors, and has therefore apparently shaped the basic organization of the human brain.

But enough about science and back to the ballpark! In front of 33,009 pitch-sensitive Homo sapiens, I managed to sing our national anthem without audible groaning from the crowd. What an honor it was! I pass along this memory to encourage each of you to test your own pitch this Independence Day. Let’s all celebrate the birth of our great nation. Have a happy Fourth!

Reference:

[1] Divergence in the functional organization of human and macaque auditory cortex revealed by fMRI responses to harmonic tones. Norman-Haignere SV, Kanwisher N, McDermott JH, Conway BR. Nat Neurosci. 2019 Jun 10. [Epub ahead of print]

Links:

Our brains appear uniquely tuned for musical pitch (National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke news release)

Sound Health: An NIH-Kennedy Center Partnership (NIH)

Bevil Conway (National Eye Institute/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke; National Eye Institute; National Institute of Mental Health


An Indisposable Idea from a Disposable Diaper

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3D Silver Nanostructures
Caption: 3D silver nanostructures created using implosion fabrication. Credit: Daniel Oran, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Using a screwdriver on the tiny microcircuits arrayed inside a computer hard drive can be a real eye strain. Even more challenging is building the microcircuits or other electronic components at the nanoscale, one-billionth of a meter or less.

That’s why researchers are always on the lookout for new tools to help them work on such a minute scale. But some of these incredibly tiny tools and scaffolds can derive from very unexpected sources.

As published in the journal Science, an NIH-funded team has developed a technique called implosion fabrication to build impressively small and intricate components on the nanoscale [1]. Its secret ingredient: water-swollen gels that you’d find in a baby’s disposable diaper.

A baby’s disposable diaper? If that sounds familiar, my blog highlighted a related technique called expansion microscopy a few years ago that uses water-swollen gels that are generated from a compound used in diapers called sodium polyacrylate.

The previously-reported microscopy technique, from the lab of Edward Boyden, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, embeds biological samples in a fine web of sodium polyacrylate. When water is added, the gel expands, blowing up the specimen to 100 times its original size. This groundbreaking technique, called expansion microscopy, has enabled labs around the world to use conventional microscopes for high-resolution, nanoscale imaging.

In the latest work, Boyden’s team, including co-first authors Daniel Oran and Samuel Rodriques, asked a simple question: What would happen if they applied the sample preparation technique used for expansion microscopy—only in reverse?

To find out, Boyden’s team created millimeter-sized blocks of the super-absorbent sodium polyacrylate diaper compound. After using a nifty trick for attaching molecular anchors in a 3D pattern, they dehydrated the gel and voila! The structures imploded and shrank down to one-thousandth their original size, while holding their 3D shape.

During the process, they can add to the anchors a range of functional molecules or elements. These include DNA, nanoparticles, semiconductors, or almost anything that’s needed.

While more work is needed to perfect the new technique, the researchers have already shown it can create objects one cubic millimeter in size, engineered to include intricate details down to about 50 nanometers. For comparison, a virus is about 30 to 50 nanometers.

These latest findings come as a reminder that advances in biomedicine often lead in wonderful and unexpected new directions. Out of the NIH-funded efforts related to The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative, members of the Boyden Lab wanted to see the brain better using basic microscopes. Now, we have a widely-applicable promising new approach to nanofabrication.

Reference:

[1] 3D nanofabrication by volumetric deposition and controlled shrinkage of patterned scaffolds. Oran D, Rodriques SG, Gao R, Asano S, Skylar-Scott MA, Chen F, Tillberg PW, Marblestone AH, Boyden ES. Science. 2018 Dec 14;362(6420):1281-1285.

Links:

Size of the Nanoscale (Nano.gov)

Synthetic Neurobiology Group, Ed Boyden (MIT, Cambridge, MA)

The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


Finding Beauty in the Nervous System of a Fruit Fly Larva

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Wow! Click on the video. If you’ve ever wondered where those pesky flies in your fruit bowl come from, you’re looking at it right now. It’s a fruit fly larva. And this 3D movie offers never-before-seen details into proprioception—the brain’s sixth sense of knowing the body’s location relative to nearby objects or, in this case, fruit.

This live-action video highlights the movement of the young fly’s proprioceptive nerve cells. They send signals to the fly brain that are essential for tracking the body’s position in space and coordinating movement. The colors indicate the depth of the nerve cells inside the body, showing those at the surface (orange) and those further within (blue).

Such movies make it possible, for the first time, to record precisely how every one of these sensory cells is arranged within the body. They also provide a unique window into how body positions are dynamically encoded in these cells, as a segmented larva inches along in search of food.

The video was created using a form of confocal microscopy called Swept Confocally Aligned Planar Excitation, or SCAPE. It captures 3D images by sweeping a sheet of laser light back and forth across a living sample. Even better, it does this while the microscope remains completely stationary—no need for a researcher to move any lenses up or down, or hold a live sample still.

Most impressively, with this new high-speed technology, developed with support from the NIH’s BRAIN Initiative, researchers are now able to capture videos like the one seen above in record time, with each whole volume recorded in under 1/10th of a second! That’s hundreds of times faster than with a conventional microscope, which scans objects point by point.

As reported in Current Biology, the team, led by Elizabeth Hillman and Wesley Grueber, Columbia University, New York, didn’t stop at characterizing the structural details and physical movements of nerve cells involved in proprioception in a crawling larva. In another set of imaging experiments, they went a step further, capturing faint flashes of green in individual labeled nerve cells each time they fired. (You have to look very closely to see them.) With each wave of motion, proprioceptive nerve cells light up in sequence, demonstrating precisely when they are sending signals to the animal’s brain.

From such videos, the researchers have generated a huge amount of data on the position and activity of each proprioceptive nerve cell. The data show that the specific position of each cell makes it uniquely sensitive to changes in position of particular segments of a larva’s body. While most of the proprioceptive nerve cells fired when their respective body segment contracted, others were attuned to fire when a larval segment stretched.

Taken together, the data show that proprioceptive nerve cells provide the brain with a detailed sequence of signals, reflecting each part of a young fly’s undulating body. It’s clear that every proprioceptive neuron has a unique role to play in the process. The researchers now will create similar movies capturing neurons in the fly’s central nervous system.

A holy grail of the BRAIN Initiative is to capture the brain in action. With these advances in imaging larval flies, researchers are getting ever closer to understanding the coordinated activities of an organism’s complete nervous system—though this one is a lot simpler than ours! And perhaps this movie—and the anticipation of the sequels to come—may even inspire a newfound appreciation for those pesky flies that sometimes hover nearby.

Reference:

[1] Characterization of Proprioceptive System Dynamics in Behaving Drosophila Larvae Using High-Speed Volumetric Microscopy. Vaadia RD, Li W, Voleti V, Singhania A, Hillman EMC, Grueber WB. Curr Biol. 2019 Mar 18;29(6):935-944.e4.

Links:

Using Research Organisms to Study Health and Disease (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)

The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

Hillman Lab (Columbia University, New York)

Grueber Lab (Columbia University, New York)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development


Taking Brain Imaging Even Deeper

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Thanks to yet another amazing advance made possible by the NIH-led Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative, I can now take you on a 3D fly-through of all six layers of the part of the mammalian brain that processes external signals into vision. This unprecedented view is made possible by three-photon microscopy, a low-energy imaging approach that is allowing researchers to peer deeply within the brains of living creatures without damaging or killing their brain cells.

The basic idea of multi-photon microscopy is this: for fluorescence microscopy to work, you want to deliver a specific energy level of photons (usually with a laser) to excite a fluorescent molecule, so that it will emit light at a slightly lower energy (longer wavelength) and be visualized as a burst of colored light in the microscope. That’s how fluorescence works. Green fluorescent protein (GFP) is one of many proteins that can be engineered into cells or mice to make that possible.

But for that version of the approach to work on tissue, the excited photons need to penetrate deeply, and that’s not possible for such high energy photons. So two-photon strategies were developed, where it takes the sum of the energy of two simultaneous photons to hit the target in order to activate the fluorophore.

That approach has made a big difference, but for deep tissue penetration the photons are still too high in energy. Enter the three-photon version! Now the even lower energy of the photons makes tissue more optically transparent, though for activation of the fluorescent protein, three photons have to hit it simultaneously. But that’s part of the beauty of the system—the visual “noise” also goes down.

This particular video shows what takes place in the visual cortex of mice when objects pass before their eyes. As the objects appear, specific neurons (green) are activated to process the incoming information. Nearby, and slightly obscuring the view, are the blood vessels (pink, violet) that nourish the brain. At 33 seconds into the video, you can see the neurons’ myelin sheaths (pink) branching into the white matter of the brain’s subplate, which plays a key role in organizing the visual cortex during development.

This video comes from a recent paper in Nature Communications by a team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge [1]. To obtain this pioneering view of the brain, Mriganka Sur, Murat Yildirim, and their colleagues built an innovative microscope that emits three low-energy photons. After carefully optimizing the system, they were able to peer more than 1,000 microns (0.05 inches) deep into the visual cortex of a live, alert mouse, far surpassing the imaging capacity of standard one-photon microscopy (100 microns) and two-photon microscopy (400-500 microns).

This improved imaging depth allowed the team to plumb all six layers of the visual cortex (two-photon microscopy tops out at about three layers), as well as to record in real time the brain’s visual processing activities. Helping the researchers to achieve this feat was the availability of a genetically engineered mouse model in which the cells of the visual cortex are color labelled to distinguish blood vessels from neurons, and to show when neurons are active.

During their in-depth imaging experiments, the MIT researchers found that each of the visual cortex’s six layers exhibited different responses to incoming visual information. One of the team’s most fascinating discoveries is that neurons residing on the subplate are actually quite active in adult animals. It had been assumed that these subplate neurons were active only during development. Their role in mature animals is now an open question for further study.

Sur often likens the work in his neuroscience lab to astronomers and their perpetual quest to see further into the cosmos—but his goal is to see ever deeper into the brain. His group, along with many other researchers supported by the BRAIN Initiative, are indeed proving themselves to be biological explorers of the first order.

Reference:

[1] Functional imaging of visual cortical layers and subplate in awake mice with optimized three-photon microscopy. Yildirim M, Sugihara H, So PTC, Sur M. Nat Commun. 2019 Jan 11;10(1):177.

Links:

Sur Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)

The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

NIH Support: National Eye Institute; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering


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