The junctions in the central nervous systems that enable the information to flow between neurons, known as synapses, are around 100 times smaller than the width of a human hair (one micrometer and less) and as such are difficult to target let alone measure.
By applying a high-resolution scanning probe microscopy that allows three-dimensional visualisation of the structures, the team were able to measure and record the flow of current in small synaptic terminals for the first time.
“We replaced the conventional low-resolution optical system with a high-resolution microscope based on a nanopipette,” said Dr Pavel Novak, a bioengineering specialist from Queen Mary’s School of Engineering and Materials Science.
“The nanopipette hovers above the surface of the sample and scans the structure to reveal its three-dimensional topography. The same nanopipette then attaches to the surface at selected locations on the structure to record electrical activity. By repeating the same procedure for different locations of the neuronal network we can obtain a three-dimensional map of its electrical properties and activity.”
The research, published today in Neuron, opens a new window into the neuronal activity at nanometre scale, and may contribute to the wider effort of understanding the function of the brain represented by the Brain Activity Map Project (BRAIN initiative), which aims to map the function of each individual neuron in the human brain.
The research also involves scientists from University College London and Imperial College London.
Nanoscale targeted patch clamp recordings of functional presynaptic ion channel is published in the journal Neuron on Wednesday 18 September.
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Queen Mary, University of London
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Queen Mary University of London
Queen Mary University of London is one of the UK's leading research-focused higher education institutions with some 17,840 undergraduate and postgraduate students.
A member of the Russell Group, it is amongst the largest of the colleges of the University of London. Queen Mary’s 4,000staff deliver world class degree programmes and research across 21 academic departments and institutes, within three Faculties: Science and Engineering; Humanities and Social Sciences; and the School of Medicine and Dentistry.
Queen Mary is ranked 11th in the UK according to the Guardian analysis of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, and has been described as ‘the biggest star among the research-intensive institutions’ by the Times Higher Education.
The College has a strong international reputation, with around 20 per cent of students coming from over 100 countries. Queen Mary has an annual turnover of £300m, research income worth £90m, and generates employment and output worth £600m to the UK economy each year.
The College is unique amongst London's universities in being able to offer a completely integrated residential campus, with a 2,000-bed award-winning Student Village on its Mile End Campus.
Neha Okhandiar | Source: Queen Mary University of London
Further information: www.qmul.ac.uk
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