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Technique Captures Striking Video of Neurons in Mid-Connection

Neuroscientists in Illinois have invented a new way to visualize groups of neurons as they grow and make connections with one another. The resulting imagery is as insightful as it is beautiful.

The researchers, led by Gabriel Popescu of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, used a technique called spatial light interference microscopy, or SLIM. Light shining through a thin layer of cells is monitored for variations that indicate it where it has passed through different materials.

Neurons forming networks, viewed using the SLIM technique. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Getting data about live neurons, especially visual data, is typically difficult. Neurons are usually packed closely together, and tapping into a network of them is often invasive, or involves radioactive dyes. The SLIM technique lets researchers view groups of cells more directly and non-invasively.

Researchers can discern not only individual cells, but also the movement of nutrients and supplies along their appendages (called "processes") and within the cells themselves.

Such detailed imagery doesn't just look good — it's also good science. The research shows that human neurons (in this case only a handful, derived from stem cells) seek each other out and form networks without any kind of prompting from, say, the rest of the nervous system or other external factors.

Relationships between growth, network configuration, and exchanges of cellular goods along the processes were also observed, and some limited observations were made on those topics.

SLIM promises to be a powerful tool for neuroscientists aiming to better understand the organization of neural networks, and for cellular biologists who want to observe the tiniest of interactions up close and in real time.

The paper, "Label-Free Characterization of Emerging Human Neuronal Networks," was published this week in Scientific Reports.