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Spectrum: Autism Research News

Microscope reveals nanoscale detail in live mouse brains

by  /  8 February 2012

This article is more than five years old. Autism research — and science in general — is constantly evolving, so older articles may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.


A new microscope allows researchers to capture the movement of tiny signal-receiving branches in the brains of adult mice at the nanoscale level. The results were published last week in Science1.

Using similar methods, researchers can peer into the brains of live, anesthetized mice, and glimpse how neurons grow and develop over time.

But this method is the first to distinguish details less than 200 nanometers in size in live mice.

The live-brain imaging technique uses stimulated emission depletion microscopy, or STED microscopy, to resolve fluorescent structures as small as 70 nanometers.

Using this technique on adult mice with fluorescently labeled neurons, the researchers show in real time that dendrites — the signal-receiving branches of neurons — move and change shape over a 30-minute interval. Studies have demonstrated dendritic movement in 5-day-old mice, but not in adults, the researchers say2.

Abnormal dendritic spines are a feature of both fragile X syndrome and autism. Environments that encourage learning and memory and drug treatments both normalize atypical spines in fragile X mice, studies have shown.

The new technique will allow researchers to observe subtle real-time changes in dendritic spines in live mice, and may further our understanding of how neurons communicate in autism and related disorders.

  1. Berning S. et al. Science 335, 551 (2012) PubMed
  2. Nägerl U.V. et al. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 105, 18982-18987 (2008) PubMed