A rapid approach to high-resolution fluorescence imaging in semi-thick brain slices.
A fundamental goal to both basic and clinical neuroscience is to better understand the identities, molecular makeup, and patterns of connectivity that are characteristic to neurons in both normal and diseased brain. Towards this, a great deal of effort has been placed on building high-resolution neuroanatomical maps(1-3). With the expansion of molecular genetics and advances in light microscopy has come the ability to query not only neuronal morphologies, but also the molecular and cellular makeup of individual neurons and their associated networks(4). Major advances in the ability to mark and manipulate neurons through transgenic and gene targeting technologies in the rodent now allow investigators to program neuronal subsets at will(5-6). Arguably, one of the most influential contributions to contemporary neuroscience has been the discovery and cloning of genes encoding fluorescent proteins (FPs) in marine invertebrates(7-8), alongside their subsequent engineering to yield an ever-expanding toolbox of vital reporters(9). Exploiting cell type-specific promoter activity to drive targeted FP expression in discrete neuronal populations now affords neuroanatomical investigation with genetic precision. Engineering FP expression in neurons has vastly improved our understanding of brain structure and function. However, imaging individual neurons and their associated networks in deep brain tissues, or in three dimensions, has remained a challenge. Due to high lipid content, nervous tissue is rather opaque and exhibits auto fluorescence. These inherent biophysical properties make it difficult to visualize and image fluorescently labelled neurons at high resolution using standard epifluorescent or confocal microscopy beyond depths of tens of microns. To circumvent this challenge investigators often employ serial thin-section imaging and reconstruction methods(10), or 2-photon laser scanning microscopy(11). Current drawbacks to these approaches are the associated labor-intensive tissue preparation, or cost-prohibitive instrumentation respectively. Here, we present a relatively rapid and simple method to visualize fluorescently labelled cells in fixed semi-thick mouse brain slices by optical clearing and imaging. In the attached protocol we describe the methods of: 1) fixing brain tissue in situ via intracardial perfusion, 2) dissection and removal of whole brain, 3) stationary brain embedding in agarose, 4) precision semi-thick slice preparation using new vibratome instrumentation, 5) clearing brain tissue through a glycerol gradient, and 6) mounting on glass slides for light microscopy and z-stack reconstruction (Figure 1). For preparing brain slices we implemented a relatively new piece of instrumentation called the Compresstome VF-200 (http://www.precisionary.com/products_vf200.html). This instrument is a semi-automated microtome equipped with a motorized advance and blade vibration system with features similar in function to other vibratomes. Unlike other vibratomes, the tissue to be sliced is mounted in an agarose plug within a stainless steel cylinder. The tissue is extruded at desired thicknesses from the cylinder, and cut by the forward advancing vibrating blade. The agarose plug/cylinder system allows for reproducible tissue mounting, alignment, and precision cutting. In our hands, the Compresstome yields high quality tissue slices for electrophysiology, immunohistochemistry, and direct fixed-tissue mounting and imaging. Combined with optical clearing, here we demonstrate the preparation of semi-thick fixed brain slices for high-resolution fluorescent imaging.