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6 INSIDE SALK

SUMMER 2016

WWW.SALK.EDU

Kohei Sekiguchi (left) and Axel Nimmerjahn reveal

the world’s first imaging data on spinal cellular

activity during behavior, enabled by their innovative

miniaturized microscopes.

DISCOVERIES

Amicroscope about the size of a penny

is giving scientists a newwindow into

the everyday activity of cells within

the spinal cord. The newminiaturized

imaging methods, described on April 28,

2016 in

Nature Communications

, reveal

more about nervous system function and

could lead to pain treatments for spinal

cord injuries, chronic itch and diseases

such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis

(ALS).

The spinal cord has proven challenging

for live observation in part because

it is close to pulsating organs, which

can hinder stable views of cells

within. However, by building upon

his miniaturized microscopes and

developing new procedural and

computational approaches, Salk

Assistant Professor Axel Nimmerjahn,

together with first author Kohei

Sekiguchi and colleagues, were able to

capture the action of living cells in real

time and during vigorous movements.

By visualizing changes in cellular

activity in awake, roaming mice, the

team found that distinct stimuli—such

as light touch or pressure—activate

different subsets of spinal sensory

neurons. Certain features, like the

intensity or duration of a given stimulus,

were also reflected in the activity of the

neurons.

Surprisingly, the study revealed that

astrocytes—cells in the nervous

system traditionally viewed as merely

supportive—unexpectedly react to

intense sensation. Though the astrocytes

cannot send electrical signals like

neurons can, they generated their own

chemical signals in a coordinated way

during intense stimuli.

“Nowwe can look at disease contexts

like spinal cord injury and see how

treatments actually affect the cells,”

says Nimmerjahn.

TINY MICROSCOPES REVEAL HIDDEN

ROLE OF NERVOUS SYSTEM CELLS

The miniaturized technology offers unprecedented

insight into nervous system function and could lead

to novel pain treatments for spinal cord injuries and

neurodegenerative diseases.

NEUROSCIENCE

www.salk.edu/insidesalk0816/nimmerjahn