Atomic force microscopy system can image nanoscale dynamics of neurons

Using atomic force microscopy (AFM), a team of researchers imaged the structural dynamics of living neurons with unprecedented spatial resolution.

Mar 16th, 2015
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Using atomic force microscopy (AFM), which incorporates a laser, researchers at the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience (Jupiter, FL) and Kanazawa University (Japan) have succeeded in imaging the structural dynamics of living neurons with unprecedented spatial resolution.

While progress has been made over the past decades in the pursuit to optimize AFM for imaging living cells, there were still a number of limitations and technological issues that needed to be addressed before fundamental questions in cell biology could be addressed in living cells.

Drs. Ryohei Yasuda and Mikihiro Shibata of Max Planck, in collaboration with Kanazawa University, built a new AFM system optimized for live-cell imaging. The system differs in many ways from conventional AFM, as it uses an extremely long and sharp needle attached to a highly flexible plate. The system is also optimized for fast scanning to capture dynamic cellular events. These modifications have enabled researchers to image living cells, such as mammalian cell lines or mature hippocampal neurons, without any sign of cellular damage.

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In particular, this study demonstrates the capability to track structural dynamics and remodeling of the cell surface, such as morphogenesis of filopodia, membrane ruffles, pit formation or endocytosis, in response to environmental stimulants.

According to Yasuda, the successful observations of structural dynamics in live neurons present the possibility of visualizing the morphology of synapses at nanometer resolution in real time in the near future. Since morphology changes of synapses underlie synaptic plasticity and our learning and memory, this will provide us with many new insights into mechanisms of how neurons store information in their morphology, how it changes synaptic strength and ultimately how it creates new memory.

Full details of the work appear in the journal Scientific Reports; for more information, please visit


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