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Technique lets scientists see brain in full color

Nov. 6, 2007
Courtesy Nature
and World Science staff

Mul­ti­col­or la­bel­ing of nerve cells in a 'Brain­bow' trans­genic mouse. The image shows neu­rons, or nerve cells, of the hip­po­cam­pus, a brain struc­ture cent­ral to mem­ory form­ation. (Cred­it: Con­fo­cal mi­cros­co­py by Jean Li­vet)


With a com­bina­t­ion of ge­net­ic tricks and fan­cy pro­teins, re­search­ers have col­ored hun­dreds of in­di­vid­ual cells in a mouse brain with dis­tinc­tive hues. 

This pro­vides a key step to­wards un­der­stand­ing how the nerv­ous sys­tem works, both nor­mally and in dis­eased brains, sci­en­tists said.

The re­search, pub­lished in the Oct. 31 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Na­ture, takes brain map­ping to a new lev­el, and re­sults in the la­bel­ling of nerve cells with ap­prox­i­mately 90 dif­fer­ent co­lour com­bina­t­ions.

Over a hun­dred years ago, the Span­ish phy­si­cian Ra­mon Y Ca­jal opened the gates to mod­ern neu­ro­sci­ence with a tech­nique that col­ors nerve cells so their struc­ture is clearly vis­i­ble, called Gol­gi stain­ing. But it uses only one col­or, and un­til now it has re­mained dif­fi­cult to map out in­di­vid­ual cells in each brain cir­cuit. 

In the new re­search, Jeff Licht­man of Har­vard Un­ivers­ity in Mas­sa­chu­setts and col­leagues de­vel­oped a technicol­or ver­sion of Gol­gi stain­ing, called “Brain­bow,” that they said al­lows more de­tailed re­con­struc­tions of brain cir­cuits.


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With a combination of genetic tricks and fancy proteins, researchers have colourfully colored hundreds of individual brain cells with distinctive hues. This provides a key step towards understanding how the nervous system works, both normally and in diseased brains, scientists said. The research, published in the Oct. 31 issue of the research journal Nature, takes brain mapping to a new level, and results in the labelling of nerve cells with approximately 90 different colour combinations. Over a hundred years ago, the Spanish physician Ramon Y Cajal opened the gates to modern neuroscience with a technique that colors nerve cells so their structure is clearly visible, called Golgi staining. But it uses only one color, and until now it has remained difficult to map out individual cells in each brain circuit. In the new research, Jeff Lichtman of Harvard University in Massachusetts and colleagues developed a technicolor version of Golgi staining, called “Brainbow,” that they said allows more detailed reconstructions of brain circuits.