By mixing and matching powerful advances in microscopy and cell biology, researchers have imaged intricate details of individual nerve cells in fruit flies and mice, and even controlled small groups of nerve cells in living mice.
The techniques, published in two new studies, represent big steps forward for understanding how the brain operates, says molecular neuroscientist Hongkui Zeng of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.
“Without this kind of technology, we were only able to look at the soup level,” in which diverse nerve cells, or neurons, are grouped and analyzed together, she says. But the new studies show that nerve cells can be studied individually.
[P]hysicist Eric Betzig and his colleagues had developed a powerful microscope that can quickly peer deep into layers of brain tissue. Called a lattice light sheet microscope, the rig sweeps a thin sheet of laser light down through the brain, revealing cells’ structures.
Those meticulous views will allow more experiments, says Betzig, now an HHMI investigator at the University of California, Berkeley, such as studying whether synapses look different in certain diseases, or how myelin forms during development. “If you want to dive deep into any one of these areas, you can do it now,” he says.
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