, Volume 33, Issue 2, pp 251-258

Three-dimensional imaging of living and dying neurons with atomic force microscopy

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Abstract

Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) has been used to image the morphology of developing neurons and their processes. Additionally, AFM can physically interact with the cell under investigation in numerous ways. Here we use the AFM to both three-dimensionally image the neuron and to inflict a nano/micro-puncture to its membrane. Thus, the same instrument used as a tool to precisely penetrate/cut the membrane at the nanoscale level is employed to image the morphological responses to damage. These first high resolution AFM images of living chick dorsal root ganglion cells and cells of sympathetic ganglion and their growing processes provide confirmation of familiar morphologies. The increased resolution of the AFM revealed these structures to be significantly more complex and variable than anticipated. Moreover we describe novel, dynamic, and unreported architectures, particularly large dorsally projecting ridges, spines, and ribbons of cytoplasm that appear and disappear on the order of minutes. In addition, minute (ca. 100 nm) hair-like extensions of membrane along the walls of nerve processes that also shift in shape and density, appearing and disappearing over periods of minutes were seen. We also provide “real time” images of the death of the neuron cell body after nano/micro scale damage to its membrane. These somas excreted their degraded cytoplasm, revealed as an enlarging pool beneath and around the cell. Conversely, identical injury, even repeated perforations and nanoslices, to the neurite's membrane do not lead to demise of the process. This experimental study not only provides unreported neurobiology and neurotrauma, but also emphasizes the unique versatility of AFM as an instrument that can (1) physically manipulate cells, (2) provide precise quantitative measurements of distance, surface area and volume at the nanoscale if required, (3) derive physiologically significant data such as membrane pressure and compliance, and (4) during the same period of study—provide unexcelled imaging of living samples.