Beautiful Brains

by Gabrielle DeMarco on January 12, 2011

Who knew a section of slimy cerebral cortex could be so beautiful? This confocal image was created in the Microscopy Core of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies by undergraduate biology student Madelyn May. After developing the image as part of an undergraduate research project with core director Chris Bjornsson, May received an honorable mention for the work at the annual Olympus BioScapes international digital image competition.

While pretty, the image is part of some important research being conducted by Bjornsson on how microscopy techniques can be improved to assist in scientific discovery related to things like cancer or drug delivery. The problem with many less sophisticated labeling and imaging techniques is that they quickly look like a colored jumble when used for brain tissue.  This is due to the complicated and very branching nature of the tissue, as well as the many different types of cells found in just a 100-microns-thick section like the one pictured above. Bjornsson is looking to label six different cell types within the brain as well as provide room in an image for researchers to add multiple functional markers, which will provide them details on cell interaction or development.

May’s image shows progress on this work with three cell types being clearly labeled. What you are looking at are the lovely and complex branching astrocytes of the brain in yellow.  These star-like glial cells surround the neurons of the brain and perform a wide variety of functions in the body including repair of injuries to the brain and protection of the brain’s neurons. In cyan (the formal name for that bluish-green color) we see the nuclei of each of the surrounding neurons in the brain. And in red, we see the blood vessels that provide blood supply to the brain. The brain studied here is a rat model.

The image was created using a confocal microscope. Confocal microscopy take a three dimensional sample and creates an in-focus image of small layers of the larger image (60-70 layers are viewed in this image alone). It then piles the images to create a clear image of the structure of the entire sample. This provides researchers with important information on how the different materials are arranged in the sample. They can also scroll through the different layers to get a closer look at a given area.

This year’s BioScapes competition included more than 2,000 entries from around the world. In its seventh year, the competition is judged on an image’s beauty as well as its science and technical merit. 

Bjornsson himself received an honorable mention in the 2007 competition for this image: