For the love of brain

What gets me out of bed in the morning and into the lab by 8.30am?

Answer: The love of neuroscience.

 

I freeze my aCSF in the shape of little hearts <3

I freeze my aCSF in the shape of little hearts

 

I absolutely love the brain. It’s such a complicated, yet incredibly delicate, structure and was the last major organ I learnt about during my 20+ years of full-time education. Of all the things that humans have discovered and achieved in the last few thousand years, the brain still holds a lot of secrets.

For every experiment I did during my PhD I had to cut very thin slices of fresh rat brain. The slices were 300 micrometres thin, which is just under a third of a millimetre (0.3 mm). They had to be this thin in order for light to shine through them so that I could see individual neurons for my patch clamp experiments.

 

This is what I see when I do my patch clamp experiments

This is what I see when I do my patch clamp experiments – note the patch clamp electrode approaching the middle cell from above. The cells are pyramidal neurons (because they are triangular in shape) from the hippocampus.

 

I really enjoy seeing actual neurons in situ. There’s nothing quite like it in my opinion. It got even better when I would successfully ‘patch’ a cell and see the wiggly lines on my computer screen form the distinctive shapes of action potentials, which are the electrical signals that neurons use to communicate with each other.

In the very beginning I found it slightly odd that the smooth spiky structure on the black and white screen was able to produce the electrical signals on the oscilloscope without looking as though it had changed in some way. In other experiments I’ve done that involved living tissue, there was always something that moved to show that it was still alive and functioning properly. But when it came to successfully patching a neuron in a fresh brain slice, I suppose I was half expecting the neuron to contract or flash or something. But no, it just stays there, unmoving until you’re finished with it (unless it’s very unhappy with having a hole in its membrane and decides to swell and die).

Neurons aren’t the only things I see in brain slices. A lot of the time I see red blood cells, usually in capillaries. I think it’s really cool and it also gives me a better sense of scale when comes to visualising how big neurons are (as it turns out, they’re bigger than red blood cells).

 

A capillary in a brain slice - pretty cool huh?

A capillary in a brain slice – pretty cool huh?

 

Being able to see living, functioning neurons in real time isn’t the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning, but that’s another story 🙂