Dana creates her neuron art images by using an extremely delicate technique called patch-clamp electrophysiology combined with calcium imaging. She connects a small glass tube (pipette) to the round part of the neuron (the cell body or soma) and flows fluorescent dye through the tube into the cell, similar to the way gasoline flows into a gas tank. Over 40 minutes, the dye diffuses through all the branches of the neuron.
Calcium Ions + autism
As the fluorescent dye flows into the cell, it binds with calcium ions that are already inside the neuron. Dana shocks the neuron with a burst of electricity, which causes the calcium to move, and the dye to move with it. Calcium movement correlates with activity in the neuron, so with these experiments, Dana’s goal is to look at how the dye moves through these neurons in an autistic cerebellum vs. a non-autistic cerebellum. By comparing these, she is able to study what is different about the autistic brain. Learn more about Dana’s autism research here.
3d laser imaging
At the end of the experiment, Dana uses a confocal microscope to collect a three-dimensional image of the neuron. She creates these images by shining lasers on the fluorescent dye. Often, she adds extra background lighting to create additional colors or stripes that show off the texture of the brain slice. It takes about 20 minutes to scan the ~100 micron (0.1 millimeter) length of the neuron in three dimensions. When the microscope is done, she make a few adjustments, et voilà: neuron art!