Sneak peek into the nanoworld of our brain cells

10 Jan 2017

Breakthrough QBI imaging captures how brain cells communicate

A Queensland Brain Institute team is among the first in neuroscience to see the brain’s tiniest molecules in action and plot their movements.

Professor Fred Meunier’s laboratory at QBI's Clem Jones Centre for Ageing Dementia Research has developed a breakthrough technique in super-resolution microscopy.

“The technique will be revolutionary for neuroscientists and cell biologists,” Professor Meunier said.

“This is an exciting time, as we’ve opened the door for many more ground-breaking studies that will change our view of how molecules function to make the brain work.

“These images could further our understanding of memory, learning, and neurodegenerative diseases.”

Imaging captures movement within individual nerve connections

The breakthrough imaging technique captures the movement of molecules within synapses – structures connecting brain cells – that are too small for conventional microscopes.

Classical optical microscopes can only clearly identify objects that are 200 nanometres (1/5000th of a millimetre).

Super-resolution microscopy techniques can achieve 10 to 20 times higher resolution (closer to electron microscopy), even on living cells.

Professor Meunier’s team has gone one step further by extending super-resolution capabilities to explore the dynamics of the nanoworld of our brain cells, including:

  • Tracking single molecules in living brain cells undergoing communication
  • Tracking these molecules within brain cells of living organisms such as fruit flies
  • Tracking single tiny structures, called synaptic vesicles, that are responsible for the release of neurotransmitters at the synapse
  • Imaging tiny signalling endosomes responsible for brain cell survival as they move from the synapse to the cell body.

“We can now see molecules organise themselves in real life, viewing the nitty gritty of mechanisms that allow neurons to communicate,” Professor Meunier said.

“You see molecules moving randomly and then, for a few milliseconds, interacting with each other.

“Control  of these critical moments define neurotransmission and allow brain cells to communicate efficiently.”

The technique has led to a series of papers from Professor Meunier’s team published in the Journal of Cell Biology and Nature Communications.

The research was funded by the Australian Research Council  and the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Based on positive feedback, the Journal of Cell Biology selected two of the Meunier lab’s papers as part of a Special Collection made available for free.

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