The Nansen Neuroscience Lecture 2013
Connectional maps of the brain may have value in developing models of both how the brain works and how it fails when subsets of neurons or synapses are missing or misconnected. Such maps might also provide detailed information about how brain circuits develop and age.
The Nansen Neuroscience Lectures (NNL) are organized on Fridtjof Nansen's birthday to commemorate Nansen's fundamental contribution to neuroscience. The NNL are given by speakers selected from the top tier of international neuroscience research.
Connectional maps of the brain may have value in developing models of both how the brain works and how it fails when subsets of neurons or synapses are missing or misconnected. Such maps might also provide detailed information about how brain circuits develop and age. I am eager to obtain such maps in neonatal animals because of a longstanding interest in the ways neuromuscular circuitry is modified during early postnatal life as axonal input to muscle fibers is pruned. Work in my laboratory has focused on obtaining complete wiring diagrams ("connectomes") of the projections of motor neuron axons in young and adult muscles. Each data set is large and typically made up of hundreds of confocal microscopy stacks of images which tile the 3dimensional
volume of a muscle. As a first step to analyze these data sets we developed computer assisted segmentation approaches and to make this task easier, have developed second generation "Brainbow" transgenic mice that in essence segment each axon by a unique fluorescent spectral hue. Once the axons are segmented, we have been able to graph the connectivity matrices that result. This effort has led to new insights into the developmental processes that help the mammalian nervous system mold itself based on experience. Analysis of these complete muscle connectomes show a striking single axis gradient of connectivity that we think is related to the ordered ranking of neural activity in axons (the "size principle" of Henneman). In brain however, as opposed to muscle,
the high density of neuropil is overwhelming, which has precluded using the confocal optical approaches that have worked in the peripheral nervous system because there are too many neural processes in each optical section. We have thus developed a lossless automated physical sectioning strategy that generates thousands of ultra thin (~25 nm) sections on a firm plastic tape. We have developed a thin-section scanning electron microscopy approach to visualize these sections at 3 nm lateral resolution. This method makes large scale serial microscopic analysis of brain volumes more routine. We are now focused on developing an automated pipeline to trace out neural circuits in brains using this technique.