February 26, 2009

A Beautiful 'Brainbow'

(Inspired by Encephalon #64)

Neurons are clever little cells, the very material that processes what we think, see, hear, feel, understand, and so much more. Has anyone considered if they look as artistic as they are artful? In 2007 a team of Harvard neuroscientists found a way to activate multiple fluorescent proteins in neurons and which allows over 90 distinct colours to be 'tagged'. Similar to television, a palette of colours and hues can be generated from three primary colours such as red, green and blue. As one might expect, the activity generated by brain activity causes an explosion of colours, referred to as 'brainbows', and not only does this technique present an impressive light show but also allows researchers to gain an insight into the mechanics by which neurons receive and transmit information. Below are my favourite images:

Auditory portion of a mouse brainstem. A special gene (extracted from coral and jellyfish) was inserted into the mouse in order to map intricate connection. As the mouse thinks, fluorescent proteins spread out along neural pathways. Mammals in general have very thick axons in this region which enables sound to be processed very quickly.

A single neuron (red) in the brainstem. The helter-skelter of lines that criss-cross through the image are representative of signal traffic from other neurons. In this image, one brainstem neuron is surrounded by the remnants of signals from other neurons (mainly blue and yellow-coloured). When viewed with a special microscope, cyan, red and yellow lasers can cause each neuron to shine a specific colour, enabling researchers to track the activity of individual neurons.

This view of the hippocampus shows the smaller glial cells (small ovals) in the proximity of neurons (larger with more filaments). The hippocampus is an important brain structure that plays a major role in memory formation, and is also an essential component of the limbic system which is responsible for a variety of functions including emotion.

See all of the images at Wired.

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