Scientists succeed in making the spinal cord transparent

December 26, 2011, Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
A spinal cord as if made of glass: The new method enables scientists to see nerve cell in the intact cellular network. © MPI of Neurobiology / Ertürk

(Medical Xpress) -- In the event of the spinal cord injury, the long nerve cell filaments, the axons, may become severed. For quite some time now, scientists have been investigating whether these axons can be stimulated to regenerate. Such growth takes place on a scale of only a few millimetres. To date, changes like this could be determined only by cutting the tissue in question into wafer-thin slices and examining these under a microscope. However, the two-dimensional sections provide only an inaccurate picture of the spatial distribution and progression of the cells. Together with an international team, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology in Martinsried have now developed a new method by virtue of which single nerve cells can be both examined in intact tissue and portrayed in all three dimensions.

The spinal cord is the most important pathway for relaying information from the skin, muscles and joints to the brain and back again. Damage to in this region usually results in irreversible paralysis and loss of sensation. For many years, scientists have been doing their best to ascertain why nerve cells refuse to regenerate. They search for ways to stimulate these cells to resume their growth.

To establish whether a single cell is growing, the cell must be visible in the first place. Up to now, the procedure has been to cut the area of the spinal cord required for examination into ultra-thin slices. These are then examined under a microscope and the position and pathway of each cell is reconstructed. In exceptional cases, scientists could go to the trouble of first digitizing each slice and then reassembling the images, one by one, to produce a virtual 3D model. However, this is a very time-consuming endeavour, requiring days and sometimes even weeks to process the results of just one examination. Even worse, mistakes can easily creep in and falsify the results: The of individual nerve cells might get squashed during the process of slicing, and the layers might be ever so slightly misaligned when set on top of each other. As Frank Bradke explains: "Although this might not seem dramatic to begin with it prevents us from establishing the length and extent of growth of single cells." Bradke and his team at the Max Planck Institute of have investigated the regeneration of nerve cells following injuries to the spinal cord. Since July he has been working at the German Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) in Bonn. "However, since changes on this crucial scale are precisely what we need to see, we worked meticulously until we came up with a better technique", he continues.

The new technique is based on a method known as ultramicroscopy, which was developed by Hans Ulrich Dodt from the Technical University of Vienna. The Max Planck neurobiologists and an international team of colleagues have now taken this technique a step further. The principle is relatively straightforward. Spinal cord tissue is opaque due to the fact that the water and the proteins contained in it refract light differently. Thus, the scientists removed the water from a piece of tissue and replaced it by an emulsion that refracts light in exactly the same way as the proteins. This left them with a completely transparent piece of tissue. "It's the same effect as if you were to spread honey onto textured glass", Ali Ertürk, the study's first author adds. The opaque pane becomes crystal clear as soon as the honey has compensated for the surface irregularities.

The new method is a leap forward in regeneration research. By using fluorescent dyes to stain individual nerve cells, scientists can now trace their path from all angels in an otherwise transparent section. This enables them to ascertain once and for all whether or not these nerve cells recommenced their growth following injury to the spine – an essential prerequisite for future research. "The really great thing is the fact that this method can also be easily applied to other kinds of tissue", Frank Bradke relates. For example, the blood capillary system or the way a tumour is embedded in tissue could be portrayed and analysed in 3D.

Explore further: Research offers hope in new treatment for spinal cord injuries

More information: Ali Ertürk, Christoph P. Mauch, Farida Hellal, Friedrich Förstner, Tara Keck, Klaus Becker, Nina Jährling, Heinz Steffens, Melanie Richter, Mark Hübener, Edgar Kramer, Frank Kirchhoff, Hans Ulrich Dodt, Frank Bradke, 3D imaging of the unsectioned adult spinal cord to assess axon regeneration and glial responses after injury, Nature Medicine, online publication, December 25, 2011

Related Stories

Research offers hope in new treatment for spinal cord injuries

May 3, 2011
Rutgers researchers have developed an innovative new treatment that could help minimize nerve damage in spinal cord injuries, promote tissue healing and minimize pain.

Unexpected cell repairs injured spinal cord

July 7, 2011
Lesions to the brain or spinal cord rarely heal fully, which leads to permanent functional impairment. After injury to the central nervous system (CNS), neurons are lost and largely replaced by a scar often referred to as ...

Recommended for you

Researchers illustrate how muscle growth inhibitor is activated, could aid in treating ALS

January 19, 2018
Researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine are part of an international team that has identified how the inactive or latent form of GDF8, a signaling protein also known as myostatin responsible for ...

Bioengineered soft microfibers improve T-cell production

January 18, 2018
T cells play a key role in the body's immune response against pathogens. As a new class of therapeutic approaches, T cells are being harnessed to fight cancer, promising more precise, longer-lasting mitigation than traditional, ...

Weight flux alters molecular profile, study finds

January 17, 2018
The human body undergoes dramatic changes during even short periods of weight gain and loss, according to a study led by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Secrets of longevity protein revealed in new study

January 17, 2018
Named after the Greek goddess who spun the thread of life, Klotho proteins play an important role in the regulation of longevity and metabolism. In a recent Yale-led study, researchers revealed the three-dimensional structure ...

The HLF gene protects blood stem cells by maintaining them in a resting state

January 17, 2018
The HLF gene is necessary for maintaining blood stem cells in a resting state, which is crucial for ensuring normal blood production. This has been shown by a new research study from Lund University in Sweden published in ...

Magnetically applied MicroRNAs could one day help relieve constipation

January 17, 2018
Constipation is an underestimated and debilitating medical issue related to the opioid epidemic. As a growing concern, researchers look to new tools to help patients with this side effect of opioid use and aging.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Dec 26, 2011
One of many attempts, over many years, of making the tissue transparent. This technique is used on dead animal I think.

Some previous report talks about a technique on a live brain
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 26, 2011
from the article, "" scientists can now trace their path from all angels. . ."" unfortunate example of sloppy copy. All devils need not apply, I suppose. lol
Perhaps the researchers are using a special grade of silicon for the emulsion. They haven't specified what the ingredients are.

from the article: ""Thus, the scientists removed the water from a piece of tissue and replaced it by an emulsion that refracts light in exactly the same way as the proteins. This left them with a completely transparent piece of tissue.""

This is amazing. They have managed to make transparent a piece of carbon-based tissue by removing the water and adding a different concoction. I would like to find out what the ingredients are in that emulsion
3 / 5 (4) Dec 26, 2011
@nanotech. . .thanks for the link. . . I copied this excerpt from it, ""Some researchers have designed especially ambitious strategies for neural circuit mapping, such as the Brainbow mouse developed at Harvard Medical School, which combines large numbers of different fluorescent proteins to turn the mouse brain into a dazzling light show in which virtually every neuron stands out clearly from its neighbors. Miyawaki believes Scale should prove highly complementary to such efforts. All the fluorescent proteins weve tested so far are resistant to high concentrations of urea, and should be usable, he says, and so this approach should be compatible with Brainbow.""
This is obviously a different method and has to do with a mouse brain rather than the spinal cord, but both articles exemplify the important work done in these areas.
However, if they are doing these experiments on chimps and monkeys, the animal rights activists may have something to say about that.
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 26, 2011
^ Report Abuse for irrational OFF TOPIC remarks from Ghost
5 / 5 (1) Dec 26, 2011
Perhaps the researchers are using a special grade of silicon for the emulsion. They haven't specified what the ingredients are.
They used dimethyl sulphoxide emulsified with phosphate-buffered saline buffer with TRITON X-100 nonionic surfactant (alkylaryl polyether alcohol) http://www.nature...ormation
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 26, 2011
ok . .thanks for the link, Callippo. . .that's very informative :)
The images and videos are astonishing.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.