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A specialized team of neuroscientists at the Allen Institute spend their days painstakingly tracing neurons’ complex branching structures
1 min read
Allen Institute neuroscientist Lauren Alfiler is an expert in shapes. She’s part of the morphology team, the group of researchers that captures the intricate details of individual neurons. Alfiler and her colleagues take close-up microscopy images generated by another team and use specialized software to trace each neuron’s shape in 3D. Some of the cells meandering, branched tendrils make up the neuron’s axon (in image: red), the transmitter these brain cells use to send signals to other neurons, while the other filaments are the cell’s dendrites (in image: blue), which receive signals. Variance in the shape, direction, and area of these branches are important cell type descriptor and a proxy for connectivity.
Alfiler spotted a heart shape in one cell’s axon during her tracing work recently; this neuron is from the nucleus accumbens of Saimiri sciureus, a type of squirrel monkey. That region is still poorly understood but is thought to play a role in how we react to rewards and unpleasant experiences.
If you would like to reconstruct your own neuron, either as a student or a professional, check out our morphology’s team website that includes free lesson plans, free reconstruction software with protocols, an analysis toolkit, and more.
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Rachel Tompa is a science and health writer and editor. A former molecular biologist, she’s been telling science stories since 2007 and has covered the gamut of science topics, including the microbiome, the human brain, pregnancy, evolution, science policy and infectious disease. During her tenure as Senior Editor at the Allen Institute, Rachel wrote stories and created podcast episodes covering all the Institute’s scientific divisions.
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