Neuroscientists Look Inside the Mouse Brain at Nanoscale Resolution

Researchers at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the Boston University School of Medicine, used a new brain imaging technology to look inside the brain of an adult mouse at a scale previously unachievable, generating images at a nanoscale resolution.

The research is published in Cell with the title “Saturated Reconstruction of a Volume of Neocortex.”The paper is freely available online at the time of writing.

Brain Images at Nanometer Resolution

Mouse brainThe researchers developed automated technologies to probe the structure of neural tissue at nanometer – one billionth of a meter – resolution.

The cellular organization of the mammalian brain is more complicated than that of any other known biological tissue, and therefore much of the nervous system’s fine cellular structure is unexplored.

“The complexity of the brain is much more than what we had ever imagined,” said Narayanan “Bobby” Kasthuri, of the Boston University School of Medicine. “We had this clean idea of how there’s a really nice order to how neurons connect with each other, but if you actually look at the material it’s not like that. The connections are so messy that it’s hard to imagine a plan to it, but we checked and there’s clearly a pattern that cannot be explained by randomness.”

The scientists generated a reconstruction of a mouse brain sample in which all cellular objects (axons, dendrites, and glia) and many sub-cellular components (synapses, synaptic vesicles, spines, spine apparati, postsynaptic densities, and mitochondria) are rendered and itemized in a database. A program called VAST (Volume Annotation and Segmentation Tool), developed by Daniel Berger of Harvard and MIT, is used to annotate the data and assign different colors to different objects.

The scientists plan to make all data available to the scientific community. To facilitate data sharing, the scientists are now partnering with Argonne National Laboratory to create a national brain laboratory that neuroscientists around the world can access within the next few years.

“We’re getting an opportunity to peer into something that has remained somewhat intractable for so long,” said Jeff Lichtman, of Harvard University. “We are certainly far from being out of the surprise element.

There’s never a time when we look at this data that we don’t see something that we’ve never seen before.

The video shows an amazing animated reconstruction of a sub-volume of mouse neocortex with cellular and subcellular components. To fully enjoy the 3D graphics, the authors suggest to choose the highest quality video option.

Images from Narayanan Kasthuri et al./Cell.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.