Patching a Purkinje neuron

Patching a Purkinje neuron

Patching Neurons

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.

A dendrite filled with green fluorescent dye

A dendrite filled with green fluorescent dye

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.

Dana, performing experiments at the microscope in the Hansel Lab at The University of Chicago

Dana, performing experiments at the microscope in the Hansel Lab at The University of Chicago

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!