Behold the entire nervous system of a mouse, revealed in unprecedented detail by turning the animal’s body completely transparent. This technique could help us better understand the workings of mammal brains and bodies.
Ali Ertürk of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany and his team have refined a technique called tissue clearing, so that the whole bodies of mice and rats can be studied in more detail than ever before. Other methods exist for making transparent rodents, but Ertürk’s technique also shrinks the body to around a third of its original size, making it possible to view the whole animal under a microscope, and subject it to detailed laser scanning for the first time.
This enabled the team to image all the nerve cell connections inside a mouse from head-to-toe, a feat never before accomplished, says Ertürk. “We imaged the complete central nervous system of mice, and you can track individual cells several centimetres long that reach from the brain right through to the tip of the spinal cord,” he says.
The technique involves using a solvent to wash out all of a dead animal’s body water, and much of its fat too, over three or four days. This leaves the remaining tissue, including the bones, transparent, enabling much clearer, crisper microscope images.
By taking many laser scans and putting these images together, the team generated a 3D projection of a mouse, with its nervous system illuminated by a glowing green protein. The projection allows researchers to travel virtually through the mouse, examining all its neural connections.
The green colour in the above video comes from genetically engineering the mice to contain a green fluorescent protein. To visualise nerve cells or the brains of people after death, fluorescent antibodies that stick to cells and make them visible could be applied.