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Office of Neuroscience Research > WUSTL Neuroscience News > Scientists get closer look at living nerve synapses

Scientists get closer look at living nerve synapses



From the WUSTL Newsroom...

The brain hosts an extraordinarily complex network of interconnected nerve cells that are constantly exchanging electrical and chemical signals at speeds difficult to comprehend. Now, scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis report they have been able to achieve — with a custom-built microscope — the closest view yet of living nerve synapses.

Understanding the detailed workings of a synapse — the junction between neurons that govern how these cells communicate with each other — is vital for modeling brain networks and understanding how diseases as diverse as depression, Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia may affect brain function, according to the researchers.

The study is published March 23 in the journal Neuron.

Studying active rat neurons, even those growing in a dish, is a challenge because they are so small. Further, they move, making it difficult to keep them in focus at high magnifications under a light microscope.

“Synapses are little nanoscale machines that transmit information,” said senior author Vitaly A. Klyachko, an associate professor of cell biology and physiology at the School of Medicine. “They’re very difficult to study because their scale is below what conventional light microscopes can resolve. So what is happening in the active zone of a synapse looks like a blur.

“To remedy this, our custom-built microscope has a very sensitive camera and is extremely stable at body temperatures, but most of the novelty comes from the analysis of the images,” he added. “Our approach gives us the ability to resolve events in the synapse with high precision.”

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