Dana creates her neuron art images by using an extremely delicate technique called patch-clamp electrophysiology in combination with calcium imaging. In simpler terms, what she does is connect a small glass tube (pipette) to the round part of the neuron (the cell body or soma) and flow fluorescent dye through the tube into the cell like how gasoline flows into a gas tank. Over 40 minutes, the dye spreads through all the small 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 mild spurt of electricity, which causes the calcium to move, and the dye moves 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 use a confocal microscope to collect a three-dimensional image of the neuron she is working with. 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!