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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.


[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.


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

Mammalian Brain Like You’ve Never Seen It Before

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Credit: Gao et. al, Science

Researchers are making amazing progress in developing new imaging approaches. And they are now using one of their latest creations, called ExLLSM, to provide us with jaw-dropping views of a wide range of biological systems, including the incredibly complex neural networks within the mammalian brain.

In this video, ExLLSM takes us on a super-resolution, 3D voyage through a tiny sample (0.0030 inches thick) from the part of the mouse brain that processes sensation, the primary somatosensory cortex. The video zooms in and out of densely packed pyramidal neurons (large yellow cell bodies), each of which has about 7,000 synapses, or connections. You can also see presynapses (cyan), the part of the neuron that sends chemical signals; and postsynapes (magenta), the part of the neuron that receives chemical signals.

At 1:45, the video zooms in on dendritic spines, which are mushroom-like nubs on the neuronal branches (yellow). These structures, located on the tips of dendrites, receive incoming signals that are turned into electrical impulses. While dendritic spines have been imaged in black and white with electron microscopy, they’ve never been presented before on such a vast, colorful scale.

The video comes from a paper, published recently in the journal Science [1], from the labs of Ed Boyden, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, and the Nobel Prize-winning Eric Betzig, Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Ashburn, VA. Like many collaborations, this one comes with a little story.

Four years ago, the Boyden lab developed expansion microscopy (ExM). The technique involves infusing cells with a hydrogel, made from a chemical used in disposable diapers. The hydrogel expands molecules within the cell away from each other, usually by about 4.5 times, but still locks them into place for remarkable imaging clarity. It makes structures visible by light microscopy that are normally below the resolution limit.

Though the expansion technique has worked well with a small number of cells under a standard light microscope, it hasn’t been as successful—until now—at imaging thicker tissue samples. That’s because thicker tissue is harder to illuminate, and flooding the specimen with light often bleaches out the fluorescent markers that scientists use to label proteins. The signal just fades away.

For Boyden, that was a problem that needed to be solved. Because his lab’s goal is to trace the inner workings of the brain in unprecedented detail, Boyden wants to image entire neural circuits in relatively thick swaths of tissue, not just look at individual cells in isolation.

After some discussion, Boyden’s team concluded that the best solution might be to swap out the light source for the standard microscope with a relatively new imaging tool developed in the Betzig lab. It’s called lattice light-sheet microscopy (LLSM), and the tool generates extremely thin sheets of light that illuminate tissue only in a very tightly defined plane, dramatically reducing light-related bleaching of fluorescent markers in the tissue sample. This allows LLSM to extend its range of image acquisition and quickly deliver stunningly vivid pictures.

Telephone calls were made, and the Betzig lab soon welcomed Ruixuan Gao, Shoh Asano, and colleagues from the Boyden lab to try their hand at combining the two techniques. As the video above shows, ExLLSM has proved to be a perfect technological match. In addition to the movie above, the team has used ExLLSM to provide unprecedented views of a range of samples—from human kidney to neuron bundles in the brain of the fruit fly.

Not only is ExLLSM super-resolution, it’s also super-fast. In fact, the team imaged the entire fruit fly brain in 2 1/2 days—an effort that would take years using an electron microscope.

ExLLSM will likely never supplant the power of electron microscopy or standard fluorescent light microscopy. Still, this new combo imaging approach shows much promise as a complementary tool for biological exploration. The more innovative imaging approaches that researchers have in their toolbox, the better for our ongoing efforts to unlock the mysteries of the brain and other complex biological systems. And yes, those systems are all complex. This is life we’re talking about!


[1] Cortical column and whole-brain imaging with molecular contrast and nanoscale resolution. Gao R, Asano SM, Upadhyayula S, Pisarev I, Milkie DE, Liu TL, Singh V, Graves A, Huynh GH, Zhao Y, Bogovic J, Colonell J, Ott CM, Zugates C, Tappan S, Rodriguez A, Mosaliganti KR, Sheu SH, Pasolli HA, Pang S, Xu CS, Megason SG, Hess H, Lippincott-Schwartz J, Hantman A, Rubin GM, Kirchhausen T, Saalfeld S, Aso Y, Boyden ES, Betzig E. Science. 2019 Jan 18;363(6424).


Video: Expansion Microscopy Explained (YouTube)

Video: Lattice Light-Sheet Microscopy (YouTube)

How to Rapidly Image Entire Brains at Nanoscale Resolution, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, January 17, 2019.

Synthetic Neurobiology Group (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)

Eric Betzig (Janelia Reseach Campus, Ashburn, VA)

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

Navigating the Sense of Smell

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Olfactory Sensory Axons
Credit: Yu Lab, Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Kansas City, MO

Our ability to distinguish the aroma of freshly baked bread from the sweet fragrance of a rose comes from millions of sensory neurons that line the upper nasal cavity. These so-called olfactory sensory neurons activate when the specific types of odor molecules to which they are attuned enter the nose, prompting them to send their sensory alerts onward to the brain, where we become aware of a distinctive scent.

If you look closely at the striking image above from a young mouse, the thin, fluorescently labeled lines (red, green, white) show the neuronal extensions, or axons, of olfactory sensory neurons. These information-conveying axons stretch right to left from the nose through the smell-mediating olfactory bulb (blue) in the forebrain of all vertebrates, ending in just the right spot (white, pink, or red).

But the axons presented here don’t belong to just any olfactory sensory neurons. They represent newly discovered “navigator” neurons, which are essential to forge life’s very first olfactory connections [1].

The image comes from a recent paper in the journal Neuron from an NIH-supported team led by C. Ron Yu, Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Kansas City, MO. Yu’s team offered the first hints of navigator neurons a few years ago when it showed that young mice could correct errors in their olfactory wiring only when those disruptions occurred within the first week of life [2].

After that, the mice had lifelong abnormalities in their sense of smell. The findings suggested that the olfactory sensory neurons present very early in life had a unique ability to blaze a trail to the brain to establish a coherent olfactory map.

The new study confirms that navigator neurons indeed have a unique molecular identity. During their short lives, they show more extensive axon growth compared to neurons that arise later. Their axons also travel a more circuitous route to the brain, as if exploring the neural tissue before settling on a path to their final destination. As olfactory neurons in older mice regenerate, they simply follow the trail blazed for them by those early scouts.

While the new findings involve mice, the researchers suspect similar processes are at work in humans too. That means images like this one aren’t just fascinating. They could help pave the way toward new approaches for reviving navigator neurons, potentially making it possible to forge new olfactory connections—and bring back the enjoyment of delightful aromas such as freshly baked bread or roses—in those who’ve lost the ability to smell.


[1] A population of navigator neurons is essential for olfactory map formation during the critical period. Wu Y, Ma L, Duyck K, Long CC, Moran A, Scheerer H, Blanck J, Peak A, Box A, Perera A, Yu CR. Neuron. 2018 Dec 5;100(5):1066-1082.

[2] A developmental switch of axon targeting in the continuously regenerating mouse olfactory system. Ma L, Wu Y, Qiu Q, Scheerer H, Moran A, Yu CR. Science. 2014 Apr 11;344(6180):194-197.


Smell Disorders (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders)

Yu Lab (Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Kansas City, MO)

NIH Support: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders

Study Shows Genes Unique to Humans Tied to Bigger Brains

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cortical organoid

Caption: Cortical organoid, showing radial glial stem cells (green) and cortical neurons (red).
Credit: Sofie Salama, University of California, Santa Cruz

In seeking the biological answer to the question of what it means to be human, the brain’s cerebral cortex is a good place to start. This densely folded, outer layer of grey matter, which is vastly larger in Homo sapiens than in other primates, plays an essential role in human consciousness, language, and reasoning.

Now, an NIH-funded team has pinpointed a key set of genes—found only in humans—that may help explain why our species possesses such a large cerebral cortex. Experimental evidence shows these genes prolong the development of stem cells that generate neurons in the cerebral cortex, which in turn enables the human brain to produce more mature cortical neurons and, thus, build a bigger cerebral cortex than our fellow primates.

That sounds like a great advantage for humans! But there’s a downside. Researchers found the same genomic changes that facilitated the expansion of the human cortex may also render our species more susceptible to certain rare neurodevelopmental disorders.

DNA Barcodes Make for Better Single-Cell Analysis

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Variations within neurons

Caption: Single-cell analysis helps to reveal subtle, but important, differences among human cells, including many types of brain cells.
Credit: Shutterstock, modified by Ryan M. Mulqueen

Imagine how long it would take to analyze the 37 trillion or so cells that make up the human body if you had to do it by hand, one by one! Still, single-cell analysis is crucial to gaining a comprehensive understanding of our biology. The cell is the unit of life for all organisms, and all cells are certainly not the same. Think about it: even though each cell contains the same DNA, some make up your skin while others build your bones; some of your cells might be super healthy while others could be headed down the road to cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.

So, it’s no surprise that many NIH-funded researchers are hard at work in the rapidly emerging field known as single-cell analysis. In fact, one team recently reported impressive progress in improving the speed and efficiency of a method to analyze certain epigenetic features of individual cells [1]. Epigenetics refers to a multitude of chemical and protein “marks” on a cell’s DNA—patterns that vary among cells and help to determine which genes are switched on or off. That plays a major role in defining cellular identity as a skin cell, liver cell, or pancreatic cancer cell.

The team’s rather simple but ingenious approach relies on attaching a unique combination of two DNA barcodes to each cell prior to analyzing epigenetic marks all across the genome, making it possible for researchers to pool hundreds of cells without losing track of each of them individually. Using this approach, the researchers could profile thousands of individual cells simultaneously for less than 50 cents per cell, a 50- to 100-fold drop in price. The new approach promises to yield important insights into the role of epigenetic factors in our health, from the way neurons in our brains function to whether or not a cancer responds to treatment.

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