Preparation of Newborn Rat Brain Tissue for Ultrastructural Morphometric Analysis of Synaptic Vesicle Distribution at Nerve Terminals

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Our laboratory and many others have exploited the high resolving power of transmission electron microscopy to study the morphology and spatial organization of synaptic vesicles. In order to obtain high-quality electron micrographs that can yield the degree of morphological detail necessary for quantitative analysis of pre-synaptic vesicle distribution, optimal specimen preparation is critical. Chemical fixation is the first step in the process of specimen preparation, and of utmost importance to preserve fine ultrastructure. Vascular fixation with a glutaraldehyde-formaldehyde solution, followed by treatment of vibratome-sectioned specimens with osmium tetroxide, stabilizes the maximum number of molecules, especially proteins and lipids, and results in superior conservation of ultrastructure. Tissue is then processed with counterstaining, sequential dehydration and resin-embedding. En bloc staining with uranyl acetate (i.e., staining of vibratome-sectioned tissue before resin embedding) enhances endogenous contrast and stabilizes cell components against extraction during specimen processing. Contrast can be further increased by applying uranyl acetate as a post-stain on ultrathin sections. Double-staining of ultrathin sections with lead citrate after uranyl acetate treatment also improves image resolution, by intensifying electron-opacity of nucleic acid-containing structures through selective binding of lead to uranyl acetate. Transmission electron microscopy is a powerful tool for characterization of the morphological details of synaptic vesicles and quantification of their size and spatial organization in the terminal bouton. However, because it uses fixed tissue, transmission electron microscopy can only provide indirect information regarding living or evolving processes. Therefore, other techniques should be considered when the main objective is to study dynamic or functional aspects of synaptic vesicle trafficking and exocytosis.